The University System, RIP?

There were a few posts earlier in the week on graduate school, started by Jason Sorens sage advice. I continued the conversation by noting the challenge posed by free online courses.The new issue of The American Interest includes a fascinating piece by Nathan Harden entitled “The End of the University as We Know It.” Harden begins with a fine paragraph that should be enough to draw your attention: (if you find it gated, you might try the link off of NR).

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. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

I agree with most of what Harden has to say, although I think he may be wrong in the timeline.  I believe we are looking at changes of this magnitude in twenty to twenty-five years, so buckle up.

For other takes on the article, go to Ricochet.

Overall, the news is good for society. It is quite bad for anyone who would like a life comparable to that enjoyed by tenured academics today. This week, I spent 5 hours and 20 minutes teaching, 2 hours in meetings, and the remainder of the time reading and writing about things I find intrinsically fascinating. Great work if you can get it. Unfortunately for those who dream of a job in the academy, fewer and fewer may be able to get it.

Bottom Line: Listen to Jason Sorens.

8 thoughts on “The University System, RIP?

  1. Hi Marc- I disagree with that Amercian Interest essay. The author claims that the future he predicts will include “near-universal access to the highest quality teaching” No. Because if you have 10 million students, you are not doing high quality teaching. The author conflates “disseminating information” and “teaching.” Not being prescient, I have no idea whether author’s prediction will come true, but I do know that if it does, it won’t be characterized by high-quality teaching. The author suggests that the sole value of his Yale education that couldn’t be replicated online was outings with the sailing team. That’s to fundamentally mischaracterize what it means to have conversations with both profs and one’s fellow-students. There are other objections also: I recommend this as counterpoint- http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/02/01/dont-panic-amid-predictions-higher-eds-demise-essay

  2. I’m also skeptical. His argument assumes that the certificates that these schools offer for completing online courses will carry the same credentializing weight as an old-fashioned BA or BS degree. I don’t buy it. (Whether that difference will be sustainable long term, we’ll see.)

    Today, fewer than 30 percent of Americans complete a college degree — and a vanishingly small percentage of people in non-Western countries do. That’s a huge number of people to take these online courses and get certificates. Great for them — and for the world. It’s obviously better than no college at all. But that won’t drive traditional brick-and-mortar colleges out of business. It will provide a huge revenue stream for those colleges who jump on the bandwagon and start offering these second-tier degrees on top of the traditional degrees for elites of all countries.

  3. @Damon. I agree that the kind of certificates will not carry the same credentializing weight, or at least they would not if set side-by-side today. But the superior does not always win out. Think of some of the changes that have occurred in the past few decades.
    Records have been displaced by CDs and streaming music (inferior beats superior)
    Movie theaters are being displaced by Netflix (a decade or two ago, no one would have believed that people would want to watch movies on a computer screen or a screen the size of a smart phone). Bookstores are being displaced by large online retailers (you simply cannot have a comparable experience at Amazon…). In each case, convenience and cost drove the innovations and soon the inferior became the new norm.

    It is not clear to me that today’s BA or BS is even comparable to the BA or BS of earlier generations. My guess is that we all experience students who have received their degrees but are not broadly educated.

  4. @RobW. The time varies significantly from week to week. My work weeks usually fall within the range of 40-60 hours. But my work is also my hobby—as it is for many of us. So when we read at night, we read things related to our research. What is the old saying? Do something you love and you will never work a day in your life?

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