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.