Universities have long been remarkably stable institutions — so stable that in 2001, by one account, they comprised an astonishing 70 of the 85 institutions in the West that have endured in recognizable form since the 1520s...That stability has ... bred overconfidence, overpricing, and an overreliance on business models tailored to a physical world. Like ... entertainment executives did, many of us in higher education dismiss the threats that digital technologies pose to the way we work. We diminish online-learning and credentialing platforms such as Khan Academy, Kaggle, and edX as poor substitutes for the “real thing.” We can’t imagine that “our” students would ever want to take a DIY approach to their education instead of paying us for the privilege of learning in our hallowed halls. We can’t imagine “our” employers hiring someone who doesn’t have one of our respected degrees.
But we’re going to have to start thinking differently.
...this past semester, the coronavirus pandemic transformed distance learning from a quaint side product that few elite schools took seriously to a central part of our degree-granting programs. Arguments for the inherent superiority of the residential college experience will be less convincing now that we’ve conferred the same credentials—and charged the same tuition—for education delivered remotely.
Do students think their pricey degrees [from prestigious private universities] are worth the cost when delivered remotely?
The Wall Street Journal asked that question in April, and one student responded with this zinger: “Would you pay $75,000 for front-row seats to a Beyoncé concert and be satisfied with a livestream instead?”
...the core mission of higher education...in my view...is simple: As educators, we strive to create opportunities for as many students as possible to discover and develop their talents, and to use those talents to make a difference in the world.
By that measure, our current model falls short. Elite colleges talk about helping our students flourish in society, but our tuition prices leave many of them drowning in debt—or unable to enroll in the first place. We talk about creating opportunities for students, but we measure our success based on selectivity, which is little more than a celebration of the number of students we exclude from the elite-campus experience. We talk about preparing students for careers after graduation, but a 2014 Gallup survey found that only 11 percent of business leaders believed “college graduates have the skills and competencies that their workplaces need.” We talk about creating diverse campuses, but, as recent admissions scandals have made painfully clear, our admissions processes overwhelmingly favor the privileged few.
What if new technologies could allow us to understand the varied backgrounds, goals, and learning styles of our students—and provide educational material customized to their unique needs? What if we could deliver education to students via on-demand platforms that allowed them to study whenever, wherever, and whatever they desired, instead of requiring them to conform to the “broadcast” schedule of today’s education model? What if the economies of scale available from digital delivery allowed us to radically lower the price of our educational resources, creating opportunities for learners we previously excluded from our finely manicured quads? Might we discover, as the entertainment industry has, a wealth of talented individuals with valuable contributions to make who just didn’t fit into the rigid constraints of our old model?
I believe we will, but that doesn’t mean the residential university will go away. Indeed, these changes may allow universities to jettison “anti-intellectual” professional-degree programs in favor of a renewed focus on a classical liberal-arts education. But as this happens, we might discover that the market for students interested in spending four years and thousands of dollars on a broad foundation in the humanities is smaller than we believe—certainly not large enough to support the 5,000 or so college campuses in the United States today. Soon, residential colleges may experience a decline similar to that of live theaters after the advent of movies and broadcast television. Broadway and local playhouses still exist, but they are now considered exclusive and expensive forms of entertainment, nowhere near the cultural force they once were.
But remember, just because new technology changed the way entertainment was delivered doesn’t mean it impeded the industry’s underlying mission. Instead of destroying TV, movies, and books, new technologies have produced an explosion in creative output, delivered through the convenience, personalization, and interactivity of Kindle libraries, Netflix recommendations, and Spotify playlists. Despite—or maybe because of—the digital disruption we’ve recently lived through, we’re now enjoying a golden age of entertainment.
Whether we like it or not, big changes are coming to higher education. Instead of dismissing them or denying that they’re happening, let’s embrace them and see where they can take us. We have a chance today to reimagine an old model that has fallen far behind the times. If we do it right, we might even usher in a new golden age of education.