The Coming Collegiate Crash

Writing in The Washington Monthly, Kevin Carey describes an effort to use offshoring and the Internet to offer a less expensive alternative to traditional higher education, or at least to the part that relies on introductory courses in massive lecture halls. Then he makes some predictions about the future:

higher education still has some time before the Internet bomb explodes in its basement. The fuse was only a couple of years long for the music and travel industries; for newspapers it was ten. Colleges may have another decade or two, particularly given their regulatory protections. Imagine if Honda, in order to compete in the American market, had been required by federal law to adopt the preestablished labor practices, management structure, dealer network, and vehicle portfolio of General Motors. Imagine further that Honda could only sell cars through GM dealers. Those are essentially the terms that accreditation forces on potential disruptive innovators in higher education today.

There's a psychological barrier as well. Most people are so invested in the idea of education-by-institution that it's hard to imagine another way. There's also a sense that for-profit schools are a little sleazy (and some of them are). Because Web-based higher education is still relatively new, and the market lacks information that allows students to compare introductory courses at one institution to another, consumers tend to see all online courses in the same bad light. "The public isn't good at discriminating," says [Fort Hays State University provost] Larry Gould. "They read 'online course' and they think 'low quality,' even when it's not true."

But neither the regulatory nor the psychological obstacles match the evolving new reality. Consumers will become more sophisticated, not less. The accreditation wall will crumble, as most artificial barriers do. All it takes is for one generation of college students to see online courses as no more or less legitimate than any other—and a whole lot cheaper in the bargain—for the consensus of consumer taste to rapidly change. The odds of this happening quickly are greatly enhanced by the endless spiral of steep annual tuition hikes, which are forcing more students to go deep into debt to pay for college while driving low-income students out altogether.

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  • ||

    Some of my intro courses were taught via TV when I was in college. That's worse than an on-line course in many ways, with much less interactivity. Sure, I could, in theory, pester my T.A. or professor, but I could get an 'A' without doing either. That's at an accredited, highly regarded university.

    What on-line learning could use is a trusted certification body or bodies. Not the same ones involved with traditional higher ed, because of the vested interests there in protecting the status quo. Plenty of content for on-line courses is already supplied by traditional universities, of course.

  • ||

    I worry that it will result in fewer liberal arts degrees.

  • Craig||

    MIT has put their entire curriculum online, for free, on their website.

  • ||

    Then where will we go for our semi-pro football and basketball?

  • @||

    Colleges may have another decade or two

    Or longer, considering that college-educated HR personnel will (probably) continue to value college grads over freelancers (or dedicated DIYers). The stigma of not having that college degree may be around for decades to come, as those graduates in debt may have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion.

  • </||

    @
    exactly

    When credentials are the deciding factor why should any employer "count" an online degree.
    Ivy > Private > State U >>>>>>>>>> online degree.

  • Fluffy||

    I think @ is correct.

    The problem with migrating college online is that only the content of college moves online, and mastery of content is not what the education credential actually measures or signifies.

    The possession of a private four-year college degree demonstrates several social, psychological, behavioral, and class attributes, and those attributes supercede mastery of content for pretty much all degrees on the "arts" side of "arts and sciences".

    I could probably pretty easily master the content of a political science or philosophy BA from Cornell in about two months of real effort, and could demonstrate a mastery of that content by taking tests online. But evidence that I had done so would be useless as a credential to employers, because the reason they want to hire someone with a BA from Cornell has nothing to do with the content. They want to hire the guy with that degree because they know he knows how to keep himself out of trouble and get along well enough to get admitted to Cornell in the first place, and had the behavioral attributes and psychological makeup necessary to go for four years and finish. They also know he will have the class markers to his personality that come from going to Cornell for four years. That's what they want, and the content is irrelevant. You can fall out of bed the day you get out of prison and sign up for an online college and read some De Tocqueville and write a paper or take a test about it.

  • ||

    But evidence that I had done so would be useless as a credential to employers, because the reason they want to hire someone with a BA from Cornell has nothing to do with the content

    Fluffy is correct here, at least for the more "elite" colleges. Johns Hopkins, for instance, puts students through a brutal, intense workload for four years. A potential employer knows that anyone who went through that and maintained a high GPA is willing and capable of working their ass off, and should make a good employee.

  • jester||

    Licensing: saving you from the bogeyman


    That about says it. Anyone have upper level coursework in PolySci or Economics with Libertarian in the title? I bet there is, not so sure it isn't a course in strawman rebuttal, but an interesting question anyway.

    Of course there are the Cato U.s but that screams Oral Roberts or Brigham Young. Any stealthy ways to be libertarian with the govmint stamp of approval?

  • jester||

    Sorry, horrible examples for those of us in the know.

    BYU (Mormon)= Glenn Beck, Harry Reid

    Oral Roberts= Give up your shit to the Man

  • jester||

    Q: But don't corporations want to hire dishonest hacks so long as they don't usurp authority?

    A: No. They prefer BYU grads because they submit to authority and are no threat to authority. Just like late Sen. Kennedy hired Sen. Hatch, only different.

  • Some Guy||

    The students' opinions won't mean anything until the employers' opinions change. For most people, getting a college degree is about getting a job. With 100 resumes on a pile, it doesn't matter how skilled you may be (at least until you have 5-10 years experience) if you don't have that piece of paper.

  • ||

    They also know he will have the class markers to his personality that come from going to Cornell for four years.



    And that he didn't throw himself off a bridge into the gorge in despair at Ithaca's winters.

  • ||

    I think you guys are wrong on this.
    Correspondence courses have existed for many years, with limited success, and online courses face many of the same hurdles. The lack of face-to-face interaction makes it necessary for students to be more motivated and self-disciplined, and if anything the culture is getting less self-disciplined. Don't see the internet turning that around. You go to school in a classroom with others for the same reason you go in to work in an office. Even if you work in a "virtual" job, you still check in at the office a couple times a week, generally. Face to face interaction is still needed to facilitate communication.

  • ||

    It might work for English 101, but it won't work for stochastic processes.

  • Jesse Walker||

    It might work for English 101, but it won't work for stochastic processes.

    The company profiled in the piece didn't aim to replace anything but the 101 courses. (Where, Hazel should note, there isn't necessarily much more face-to-face interaction than you'll get online.)

  • ||

    I could probably pretty easily master the content of a political science or philosophy BA from Cornell in about two months of real effort, and could demonstrate a mastery of that content by taking tests online.

    Sure. I'd like to think I could do that too. The problem is when you run into an ambiguity and you need to talk to an "expert", there's no professor around to talk to.

    I do a lot of self-directed learning in my research, and I run into this problem all the time. Code doesn't work. Do I want to spend weeks digging through manuals, or do I want to talk to someone else who has done it and can point out my mistake?

    I can see how you would run into similar issues in any field. It is simply impossible to put all relevant knowledge down in writing in a way that can easily be transmitted to another person through a tutorial or textbook. Well, not impossible, but very difficult. That's why it's so hard to find good textbooks. That's why the "For Dummies" series makes money - putting knowledge into easily readable plain english is no small task. You can't just pick up a book about philosophy and expect to get the same information you would get from discussing the subject with an actual philosopher.

  • ||

    The company profiled in the piece didn't aim to replace anything but the 101 courses. (Where, Hazel should note, there isn't necessarily much more face-to-face interaction than you'll get online.)

    I'm all for that. I always felt like one of hundreds of faceless beef cattle in all my 101 courses.

  • ||

    Code doesn't work. Do I want to spend weeks digging through manuals, or do I want to talk to someone else who has done it and can point out my mistake?

    Not sure what you're coding, Hazel, but the internet and coding forums are wonderful for this. Shit, I prefer to go online because even if you have a co-worker that knows a solution, it may not be the best one, and online, you'll probably find multiple options.

  • ||

    Well a public forum is a bit more interactive than using a textbook, but for many subjects I doubt they have the kind of online community that exists for programming languages on the internet.

    My stuff, I find it hit or miss, cause there isn't necessarily a huge community of users out there for a specific device or chip, and my advisor seems to like using recently invented technology that doesn't have the bugs worked out yet.

    When it comes to philosophy or economics, I wouldn't trust anything in an online forum anyway. Who knows what kind of freaks hang out in online philosophy forums.

  • Rhywun||

    And that he didn't throw himself off a bridge into the gorge in despair at Ithaca's winters.



    Pfff. Living in NYC, I miss a good winter. I almost went to Cornell--but the $$ turned me off. Which is probably for the better, cos I paid off my public school tuition years ago.

    Shit, I prefer to go online because even if you have a co-worker that knows a solution, it may not be the best one, and online, you'll probably find multiple options.



    Soooo true. I'm astounded at my co-workers' complete lack of initiative when it comes to researching shit online. I'm always offering solutions to problems outside my field of expertise that anyone with half a brain could find online.

  • ||

    The value of a college degree to probably 90% of students is how more pay it will get them. The value to employers is that it allows them to winnow job candidates quickly and easily without potentially messy things like aptitude tests. If cheap online degrees don't do these two things, no one will want them.

    As for the cost of a college degree, that's pure supply and demand. Our society is pushing higher education faster than it can be provided. It takes time and money to get quality faculty, build facilities, develop courses, hire support staff. Even online courses require a lot of development - added to that most experienced faculty are not computer experts. Even scientists don't necessarily know how to run a web-based course property even if they can use complex and specialized programs and equipment every day.

  • ||

    Of course, without college, how will our middle class and up locate mates?

  • ||

    I'm astounded at my co-workers' complete lack of initiative when it comes to researching shit online.

    I've noticed that a lot of programmers are perfectly content to do shit the same way they've always done it, even when there is a newer, simpler way to do it--but that new way takes a little research. For instance, Microsoft is constantly adding incredibly useful shit in each release of the .NET framework and Visual Studio, and people don't even bother to check.

  • kinnath||

    My wife regularly has other students in her University of Phoenix MBA classes from Europe and Asia.

    It is already happening.

  • qwerty||

    It might work for English 101, but it won't work for stochastic processes.

    It also won't work for biology, chemistry, engineering, or any other science with a necessary laboratory or hands-on component. It also won't work for the fine arts. It also won't be as good for learning foreign languages where auditory learning is crucial. ect., ect.

    Internet courses are finding their niche, but they will never replace hands-on, face-to-face learning for a large number of fields.

  • Douglas Gray||

    Fluffy is partially correct, but it's not that Harvard, Stanford, Yale etc. offer a superior product at a competitive price. Rather they attract many of the brightest and most capable students, so employers know they are getting some of the best people. The whole admission ordeal plus graduating is a sort of vetting process.

    University education is way, way overpriced in this country. You can pay $30,000 at Occidental College to take social science courses on The Phallus, not to mention "Whiteness" as a form of "social oppression".

  • alan||

    I've noticed that a lot of programmers are perfectly content to do shit the same way they've always done it, even when there is a newer, simpler way to do it--but that new way takes a little research. For instance, Microsoft is constantly adding incredibly useful shit in each release of the .NET framework and Visual Studio, and people don't even bother to check.

    Back in the mid to late 90's I was involved with a team doing this: scene.org.
    Back then, I could not imagine using any thing other than assembly to squeeze out performance in a pre GPU era. However, even then, Microsoft had the best assembler, IMO. Would not take that approach now given Visual C++ is heavily optimized if you know what you are doing. One team a few years back created a shooter in a 256K event using C++, and only using assembly for a non graphic related matter (loops used for seeding randomized maps).

  • alan||

    By the way, I wrote a 'in my day . . . blah, blah' e-mail to the head coder on that project. Jokingly telling him, relying on the DirectX .dlls to do the rendering instead of writing your own renderer was a bit of a cheat, given in my day you had to write your own inside of tiny size requirement. He gave the log-in to their SVN, and there was something like 112 files in there. The files handling the Directx states were larger than anything I had to do. I wrote him back, 'Okay, you proved your point, you are 10X more awesome than I could ever hope to be.'

  • D.R.M.||

    Instead of partnering with colleges, they should have tried teaming up with the College Board (administrators of the College Level Examination Program) and Prometric (administrators of the DANTES Subject Standardized Tests). That would have avoided the whole accreditation battle; CLEP and DANTES credit is widely accepted.

  • Pepe||

    Complete acceptance of fully online degree programs is probably a ways off and may never happen for some fields.

    But individual online classes have been available at most universities for years, even the very prestigious ones. You're usually limited to a certain number per semester and there are only so many available but it's quite possible for a student to take maybe a quarter of their classes that way. Nothing on your transcripts indicate that the classes were online and you end up with the same degree as someone who didn't take any classes that way.

    They're fine for a lot of introductory courses. There's no real advantage to sitting in a lecture hall with 400 other people while the professor talks at you for an hour. You get the same info from watching him do it on your computer screen and you can pause and rewind.

  • ||

    This idea also discounts the notion of paying a premium to go to a school to build social connections with the bestest and brightest and also-most-likely-to-succeed-est. Now, perhaps this will also change as those people find each other online outside of college, but lets not pretend that isn't partly what people think they are paying for, and getting out of, the current system/hierarchy.

  • Turnkey||

    College is a good bit more than the classes anyway.

    Online is great for continuing education (say, after a B of science), where labs are a bit less central.

  • jtuf||

    Given the rapid pace of discovery and the increasing longevity of both lives and careers, informal continuing education online will become ever more important. As a case in point, my parents are still in the workforce. When they started their formal education, there was no theory of plate tectonics, biologist did not know that DNA carried genetic information, and Algeria was a part of France. If it wasn't for informal means of continuing education (such as books, tv, and periodicals), they would be very lost in today's world.

  • jtuf||

    dead-elvis, I know enough Ivy League graduates to know that they are not the brightest and the best. They are about as talented as the students at my local college. However, they are the most likely to succeed, mostly because of those connections they form in college.

  • KDA||

    I worry that it will result in fewer liberal arts degrees.


    Let's hope.

  • ||

    They're fine for a lot of introductory courses. There's no real advantage to sitting in a lecture hall with 400 other people while the professor talks at you for an hour. You get the same info from watching him do it on your computer screen and you can pause and rewind.

    And fast-forward, drink beer, do bong-hits, and watch the game.

    NTTAWT!

  • ||

    jtuf- I agree, perhaps I wasn't clear that I meant "best and brightest" as a perception, not a fact.

  • ||

    Basically I have no real faith in a college that regularly SPAMS my email as being a place of higher education. These are nothing more than money generators IMO.

    I am sorry but you will have a hard time making those that dragged their asses out of bed for those crap classes early morning at the brick and mortar school to get their degree think of any online degree as having much clout.

    As it is some colleges where you actually attend don't have much clout but online? They will always be limited to the smae few degrees programs Business, Liberal arts etc related. You are not going to get a degree in Engineering online.

    All I know is that if I was hiring and the position was for a degreed person and I had 75 resumes from people that suffered the task of getting the degree by going like I did and 5 from online sites, the online sites would be in the trash in no time. IMO part of getting the degree is not just about taking classes it is about having to deal with all the bullshit that goes along with getting a degree and making it to the end. Sure they could improve the way the school operate for more efficient time learning but still you have to show up for class every week on time, not show up in your pajamas at 10pm in your living room.

    Once all the HR departments get filled with online degreed people then they will be considered more than they are now of course.

    But really SPAM from a college? I even called them and said STOP I have a real degree. They asked if I asked for information since they (Phoenix) don't send out spam, which is BS.

  • Spartacus||

    A little while back, there was a similar hubbub about the impending demise of universities due to the invention of...the printing press. Cheaply printed books would make it possible for students to learn on their own without having to attend those awful lectures. It didn't happen then and it won't happen now. Online courses will be incorporated into the way colleges do their business and will ultimately become a routine part of the curriculum, as they already are at some places. The real obstacle has already been pointed out: independent study requires motivation and self-discipline, which most people lack. There is ample data at this point on success rates in online courses, and the success rates are not good, especially for the 18-22 year old group. The main reason that use of online courses will grow over the next decade is demographic: the high school age population has peaked and will be declining, and the demographic bulge will be moving into the 25-35 year old category. Those people will be in the workforce and will be increasingly trying to get additional education (certificates or graduate degrees), and they will drive demand for online courses.

  • ChrisO||

    My sense is that the relationship between workforce and college is starting to change, and that may have an effect on the type of post-secondary education that the bulk of people get.

    I don't think that Harvard and Yale are going away. As some have said, the value of these schools for students isn't particularly in a better education, but in access and connections. And, let's face it, a liberal arts degree has fuck-all to do with practical real-world job skills. I know, because I have such a degree. Yeah, I know, you "learn how to think" and all that...but you don't need to go to college for that.

    However, for the average kid who isn't Little Miss/Mr. Credentials, education may be far different 10 or 20 years from now. A college degree, by itself, is now only barely more of a selling point for job applicants than a high-school diploma was 40 years ago. Everyone has one, now. HR offices might be slow to change, but I think that career training is going to become more flexible, and I can see alternative forms of higher education being part of that, including online schooling. The result for many could be a hybrid form of schooling.

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