September 24, 2009

Disappearing Colleges?

By: Sonny Bunch

Ezra links to this Washington Monthly story by Kevin Carey asking if colleges will go the way of the newspaper:

StraighterLine is the brainchild of a man named Burck Smith, an Internet entrepreneur bent on altering the DNA of higher education as we have known it for the better part of 500 years. Rather than students being tethered to ivy-covered quads or an anonymous commuter campus, Smith envisions a world where they can seamlessly assemble credits and degrees from multiple online providers, each specializing in certain subjects and—most importantly—fiercely competing on price. Smith himself may be the person who revolutionizes the university, or he may not be. But someone with the means and vision to fundamentally reorder the way students experience and pay for higher education is bound to emerge. …

The biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall.

The idea is that this cash cow will disappear when undergrads wise up and realize they can attend lectures from YouTube (or some such) on their laptops. Color me skeptical. Consider why people go to undergraduate school, by and large: The experience. It’s not the things we learn in our first or second years in classrooms that we remember. Rather, it’s learning to live away from home, deal with new and exciting people, and, yes, party until two in the morning five nights a week, if that’s what you want to do. It’s going to football games and basketball games and track meets; it’s participating in intramural sports; it’s joining a fraternity or a sorority; it’s volunteering to help local kids learn how to read; it’s spending a spring break doing Habitat for Humanity. For most of us, I would argue that classes are almost incidental to these secondary pursuits.* Think of how empty your four years would have been without these extracurriculars (or others like them).

Can you get all of those experiences sitting at home, listening to a professor lecture via laptop? Nope. I think there’s definitely a market for at-home university learning, but it’s not for the 18-22 year old set who comprise the vast majority of undergrads. It’s for grad students looking to do night school work. It’s for continuing education students, old people with families who can’t shlep to some campus three days a week. It’s not the 18 year old trying to find the bar on campus who isn’t checking IDs.

*Obviously, this is a mild exaggeration: Class is the reason we’re there, and grades matter (to some more than others). But I think we’re kidding ourselves if we argue that pursuit of knowledge is an undergrad’s primary concern, especially in the years when he or she is taking the intro courses StraighterLine is working in.

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