“The End Of The University As We Know It”

That’s the title of a very interesting article at The American Interest by Nathan Harden.  Here’s an excerpt.

The most important part of the college bubble story—the one we will soon be hearing much more about—concerns the impending financial collapse of numerous private colleges and universities and the likely shrinkage of many public ones. And when that bubble bursts, it will end a system of higher education that, for all of its history, has been steeped in a culture of exclusivity. Then we’ll see the birth of something entirely new as we accept one central and unavoidable fact: The college classroom is about to go virtual.

. . .

The live lecture will be replaced by streaming video. The administration of exams and exchange of coursework over the internet will become the norm. The push and pull of academic exchange will take place mainly in interactive online spaces, occupied by a new generation of tablet-toting, hyper-connected youth who already spend much of their lives online. Universities will extend their reach to students around the world, unbounded by geography or even by time zones. All of this will be on offer, too, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college education.

How do I know this will happen? Because recent history shows us that the internet is a great destroyer of any traditional business that relies on the sale of information.

. . .

We may lose the gothic arches, the bespectacled lecturers, dusty books lining the walls of labyrinthine libraries—wonderful images from higher education’s past. But nostalgia won’t stop the unsentimental beast of progress from wreaking havoc on old ways of doing things. If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before. People will not continue to pay tens of thousands of dollars for what technology allows them to get for free.

There’s more at the link.  Thought-provoking reading.

I think this is a very positive development, from a very personal perspective.  You see, my parents could never afford to send me to university full-time, as my father retired at the same time that I left home;  and South Africa didn’t offer government-guaranteed student loans.  I’ve completed four university qualifications, but all of them have been obtained on my own dime through distance and/or part-time study.  Two were studied by correspondence through the University of South Africa, and two through evening classes at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Based on that experience, I started to look specifically for those who’d completed their degrees part-time when I hired staff to work for me, back in the days when I was in the IT business.  I generally found that they were much more self-disciplined, and far more likely to produce quality work from the get-go, because they were used to having to do precisely that in their studies.  They couldn’t afford to waste time, as it was their own time and money at stake, not Daddy bankrolling them.  Furthermore, someone with four to six years in the business world, even in a lower-level job, plus a part-time degree, had far more practical experience than someone with a basic degree plus one to two years’ experience.  I hired the former whenever I could, and I never regretted that policy.

I hope something like that work ethic will carry over to Internet-based study.



  1. This is interesting, but while I can see online teaching becoming much more prevalent, I don't think it's nearly as inevitable as the author believes it is. Perhaps it will supplant teaching on the undergraduate level, but physically I think many of the large, prestigious universities will endure.

    Why? Research. There is no way for the internet to economically replace lab space and access to sophisticated, specialized equipment. This graduate and post-graduate research is what (at least in the sciences) most of the big name universities are based around. Undergraduate education is nice but the big money comes from the multimillion dollar grants that a professor and their team of graduate students can bring in. Until there's a way to replicate those laboratories online the old universities will keep going strong.

  2. Peter, you were the rare employer that hired based on life experience. Most employers view job applicates with a part-time degree as second-rate.

    The Internet won't completely replace the classroom because there are people out there that need the interaction of the classroom to learn. Or do we not educate those people to their highest potential like most kids with an IEP.

  3. Something definitely has to give on college education. The colleges and universities have about priced themselves out of the market. I do not think their main focus is education – it is money and prestige and good sports teams. Freshmen and sophomores are just cannon fodder with large classrooms. I think the root of the problem is student loans just like the cost of medical care has been driven up by Medicare and Medicaid.

    In the 1970's I was able to go to 2 years of junior college and 2 years of a university with my wife working full time and me working part time. My total tuition was less than $2,000. I know there has been inflation but it shouldn't cost $2,000 to $3,000 or more for 15 hours of classes. A cost effective eduction is not the goal of higher education.

    I would love to be able to audit a university to see where the money goes and what their priorities are.


  4. I was blessed by living in California in the 1950's, and by having OK grades. I went to UCLA and paid only $64 per year for Student Body fee. Of course I had to buy books, pay lab fees, but my summer jobs took care of all that and gas money. I could not afford to live on campus.
    A good high-school (in Burbank) gave me the background, so I ended up with an excellent education, and went on to University of Chicago and got a PhD in physical chemistry, plus two years of post-doc.Then on to a fortune 500 company research lab, engineering, operations, and finally corporate consulting for operating businesses.

    To watch these kids with their loans, debts and anxiety is a heart-breaker for me. I want these young-uns to have the same breaks that I did!

    Our nation's priorities definitely need fixing.

  5. The college loan bubble is one of the next bubbles to burst. Government money has inflated the cost and made it more expensive for everyone. The big Universities will survive, but the virtual classroom is definitely a growth industry.

  6. College has gotten ridiculous. As a Louisiana resident, the TOPS program payed for my public college tuition. Whether this is right or wrong (tax payer funded) it was quite convenient. My coworkers in Arkansas weren't as lucky. Several have roughly 70k in debt if they include their spouse. It makes me worry about the future of my children on a daily basis.

    As far as online learning goes, several of my classmates and I used khanacademy.org for supplemental instruction in calculus and differential equations. However, engineering is a different matter. Current online methods simply can't provide what a competent teacher can. I believe many higher level online courses will follow this pattern for years before they will be equivalent to a standard campus class.

    During the summer in enrolled in MIT's circuits program (800.x). I thought it was a good experience, but neither the power points or the homework assignments even came close to the difficulty I faced in my university class several years earlier.

    I sincerely hope they iron out all the issues with online education in the next several years.

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