Wednesday, December 19, 2012

10 Reasons the University as We Know It is Doomed

Culled from an excellent article at The American Interest (hat tip: BadBlue).

10. In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it.

9. MIT is the first elite university to offer a credential for students who complete its free, open-source online courses. (The certificate of completion requires a small fee.) For the first time, students can do more than simply watch free lectures; they can gain a marketable credential—something that could help secure a raise or a better job. While edX won’t offer traditional academic credits, Harvard and MIT have announced that “certificates of mastery” will be available for those who complete the online courses and can demonstrate knowledge of course material. The arrival of credentials, backed by respected universities, eliminates one of the last remaining obstacles to the widespread adoption of low-cost online education.

8. In 2007 Princeton completed construction on a new $136 million luxury dormitory for its students—all part of an effort to expand its undergraduate enrollment. Last year Yale finalized plans to build new residential dormitories at a combined cost of $600 million. The expansion will increase the size of Yale’s undergraduate population by about 1,000. The project is so expensive that Yale could actually buy a three-bedroom home in New Haven for every new student it is bringing in and still save $100 million... What these universities are doing is pure folly, akin to building a compact disc factory in the late 1990s. They are investing in a model that is on its way to obsolescence. If these universities understood the changes that lie ahead, they would be selling off real estate, not buying it—unless they prefer being landlords to being educators.

7. The biggest obstacle to the rapid adoption of low-cost, open-source education in America is that many of the stakeholders make a very handsome living off the system as is. In 2009, 36 college presidents made more than $1 million. That’s in the middle of a recession, when most campuses were facing severe budget cuts. This makes them rather conservative when it comes to the politics of higher education, in sharp contrast to their usual leftwing political bias in other areas.

6. Student loan debt is at an all-time high—an average of more than $23,000 per graduate by some counts—and tuition costs continue to rise at a rate far outpacing inflation, as they have for decades. Credential inflation is devaluing the college degree, making graduate degrees, and the greater debt required to pay for them, increasingly necessary for many people to maintain the standard of living they experienced growing up in their parents’ homes.

5. The live lecture will be replaced by streaming video. The administration of exams and exchange of coursework over the internet will become the norm. The push and pull of academic exchange will take place mainly in interactive online spaces, occupied by a new generation of tablet-toting, hyper-connected youth who already spend much of their lives online. Universities will extend their reach to students around the world, unbounded by geography or even by time zones. All of this will be on offer, too, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college education.

4. Recent history shows us that the internet is a great destroyer of any traditional business that relies on the sale of information... The higher-ed business is in for a lot of pain as a new era of creative destruction produces a merciless shakeout of those institutions that adapt and prosper from those that stall and die. Meanwhile, students themselves are in for a golden age, characterized by near-universal access to the highest quality teaching and scholarship at a minimal cost. The changes ahead will ultimately bring about the most beneficial, most efficient and most equitable access to education that the world has ever seen.

3. Technology will also bring future students an array of new choices about how to build and customize their educations. Power is shifting away from selective university admissions officers into the hands of educational consumers, who will soon have their choice of attending virtually any university in the world online. This will dramatically increase competition among universities. Prestigious institutions, especially those few extremely well-endowed ones with money to buffer and finance change, will be in a position to dominate this virtual, global educational marketplace. The bottom feeders—the for-profit colleges and low-level public and non-profit colleges—will disappear or turn into the equivalent of vocational training institutes. Universities of all ranks below the very top will engage each other in an all-out war of survival. In this war, big-budget universities carrying large transactional costs stand to lose the most. Smaller, more nimble institutions with sound leadership will do best.

2. What happens when a limited supply of a sought-after commodity suddenly becomes unlimited? Prices fall. Yet here, on the cusp of a new era of online education, that is a financial reality that few American universities are prepared to face.

1. The most important part of the college bubble story—the one we will soon be hearing much more about—concerns the impending financial collapse of numerous private colleges and universities and the likely shrinkage of many public ones. And when that bubble bursts, it will end a system of higher education that, for all of its history, has been steeped in a culture of exclusivity. Then we’ll see the birth of something entirely new as we accept one central and unavoidable fact: The college classroom is about to go virtual.

Big changes are coming, and old attitudes and business models are set to collapse as new ones rise. Few who will be affected by the changes ahead are aware of what’s coming. Severe financial contraction in the higher-ed industry is on the way, and for many this will spell hard times both financially and personally. But if our goal is educating as many students as possible, as well as possible, as affordably as possible, then the end of the university as we know it is nothing to fear. Indeed, it’s something to celebrate.


GW said...

The only real danger I see in all of this is the homogenization of learning and the reduction in that portion of the population that produces new theories. That is something that the marketplace will eventually have to sort out. And conservatives better be looking at this with all the attention a hawk gives to a mouse.

As to homogenization, take for example the Constitution. My view of what it means and how it should be interpreted differs 180 degrees from many of the professors at Harvard. My view of economics is that of the "Chicago School," not that of Prof. Paul Krugman. We will be in a world of problems if the left is able to homogenize and dominate what will be the centralized teachings that go out to students. I would much prefer my children to hear from the professors of Hillsdale undergrad than Harvard, to be frank.

K-Bob said...

Doug, this goes really well with the recent post by Stacy over at TheOtherMcCain. It's like a wine pairing.

directorblue said...

@K-Bob - gotta link handy?

I can post it inline.


whitehall said...

There are still advantages to being part of a "community of scholars" at least for 4 or 5 years.

When I was in nuclear engineering school, we had regular visitors from movers-and-shakers within my industry. My fellow students were a great asset too. Interviews with future employers went even better if we could talk about our times at college. My favorite professor went on to be appointed chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Would I get a class ring from MIT if I passed one of their remote internet programs?

Yes, these are useful "social" aspects to higher education. Unfortunately too many kids only go for the social aspects.

K-BOb said...

Oops. Sorry. I don't get notifications to responses. The article I meant was this one, specifically. However any top article there about the Erik Loomis/Academe imbroglio over death wishes and incitements will do.

In the case of these folks, the shrinking job market implied by your article is good news.