Monday, September 14, 2009

Colleges, Newspapers

A colleague sent me this link to a Washington Post article, on how colleges are going to be "torn apart" like newspapers have been by the Internet. Dramatically, "The business model that sustained private U.S. colleges cannot survive."

It's not really a new theme, I've been hearing this for a while. I find myself agreeing in spirit -- I know things are going to change dramatically in education. I just find myself skeptical that anyone really knows what the change will end up looking like at this point. Here are the key paragraphs to me:

"When this happens -- be it in 10 years or 20 -- we will see a structural disintegration in the academy akin to that in newspapers now. The typical 2030 faculty will likely be a collection of adjuncts alone in their apartments, using recycled syllabuses and administering multiple-choice tests from afar."

Strangely, this is a fair description of my Harvard Extension School class, which is "recycled" from my regular Harvard class -- the lectures are taped, the assignments are pretty much the same, and the one difference is since I can't have proctored "in-class" exams, I do a multiple-choice exams over the Internet. Eerie. Maybe somebody does know what the change will end up looking like.

"Not all colleges will be similarly affected. Like the New York Times, the elite schools play a unique role in our society, and so they can probably persist with elements of their old revenue model longer than their lesser-known competitors. Schools with state funding will be as immune as their budgets. But within the next 40 years, the majority of brick-and-mortar universities will probably find partnerships with other kinds of services, or close their doors."

It's nice to hear that I'm probably safe. (Harvard's still considered an elite school, even after the endowment drop, right?) I just need the current system to last another 30 years or so. But, as usual, this is something for those starting or thinking about a PhD to ponder...


Anonymous said...

" know things are going to change dramatically in education."

What makes you say that? And how do you think things will change?


Daniel Lemire said...

The move to "adjuncts" has been ongoing. At my school, the bulk of the undergraduate teaching --- if not all of it sometimes --- is done by lecturers paid by the number of students or classes.

Yet, I think those of us outside Harvard, even outside the prestigious USA, are safe for a few decades. Basically because we are not about to "disintegrate" graduate schools. Graduate school is "apprenticeship".

Yes, you can become a researcher on your own... but if you attend graduate school, it is primarily for the apprenticeship, not for the classes.

There are still immediate consequences for everyone, including Harvard professors. The most obvious one is that lecturing to undergraduate students has much less value than it ever did. I'm not talking here about being a role model to them: that has as much value as ever... I'm talking about stepping in front of a blackboard and repeating the same boring lecture you gave last year.

This decrease in value is not new... it started out with Gutenberg, and YouTube has brought the final nail in the coffin.

So, as a professor, you have to focus on offering what is scarce to your students. Rubbing shoulder with a famous professor is one thing, I guess. But being an authentic role model is even better: here I am, I'm smart, but you can be just as smart if you work hard... here is what I do... can you do it? No? You want to do it? Push yourself!

bil g. said...

This problem may also vary from field to field. Math depts have a much more stable ugrad program than CS depts do so they may be more
in danger. Since CS changes so much someone (hopefully profs) will be the ones to redesign courses.

But as they say- its hard to predict things, especially about the future.

Jonathan Katz said...

I haven't yet read the article (so maybe I'm missing something) but hasn't the trend been going in exactly the opposite direction the past few years? More and more students are applying to college (making it more and more competitive) and tuition is consistently increasing faster than inflation (with the implication being that people are still willing to pay an ever more extravagant amount).

AMO said...

This article seems to assume that the purpose, function, and chief money-making endeavor of a university is the education of undergraduates.

Anonymous said...

It may be that tuition and student enrollment is increasing, but that is because it is really hard to find a good job in the US and people need that diploma.

It should be quite easy to design a math course over the internet, i.e. design a curriculum and invent a way for people to prove they know the material, and award degrees or other certifications.

I think the reason that this is not already done is that the schools with the resources to actually implement this new educational system of learning and certification are also the schools with the most to loose. If you consider the big Ivy League schools like Harvard, one of the things they have that puts them above other schools is physical resources such as a library, faculty, beautiful campus, etc. If they show (which I believe they could do quite easily) that one can obtain a credible certification without access to these physical resources, then they are risk decreasing the value of what they have, or appear to have, to offer.

Once a school with a good reputation figures out how to offer/sell a credible certification of learning (which should be cheaper than the ridiculous tuitions of today), then many university systems (at least at the undergraduate level) will crumble like the newspapers.

If I were Harvard, I would try to hedge bets and be the first to do this, i.e. figure out how to do quality distance learning and give reliable certifications (i.e. remote exams in which people can not cheat). That is the only way they can stay relevant in the long run.


Anonymous said...

Is there a link to the article itself in your post? I couldn't find it.

Anyway, googling turned up

The major problem with the article is that it totally fails to distinguish between different kinds of institutions.

There are large public universities. There are small private liberal arts colleges. There are major research universities. And then there are the mass of community colleges and other not-particularly-prestigious institutions teaching everyone else.

All of these institutions have different funding models. Whether the state pays into the system. How much of their budget comes from federal research money. How much of tuition is funded by (government-run) student aid. Whether the university has an endowment.

The experiences of undergraduates going to some of their classes may change. In fact, it already has. We have powerpoint, we have video-recorded lectures, and it's been possible for a decade to satisfy lame course requirements by taking them online.

But as previous commenters pointed out, it's clear that undergraduates are willing to pay a lot of money and take on a lot of debt for the experience of going to college. In addition, I think the federal government recognizes the value of research funding (even if some states like California sometimes forget what their universities are actually contributing to the state) so our jobs and our ivory towers are not going anywhere. Heck, most professors would probably take it as a blessing to not have to teach freshmen.

(The real problem that needs to be faced is administrative bloat. Fewer levels of university administration, more health insurance and a living wage for the lecturers teaching the undergrads.)

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Could have sworn I put the link in this morning. Sorry about that -- it's there now.

Paul Beame said...

This article rather completely misses the point. Going off to college marks a turning point into adulthood, even if one goes to an institution nearby. Some online course is not going to replace that.

Continuing education may not need the brick and mortar environment but a large amount of the value of the college experience is social and takes place on college campuses outside the classroom. If anything it is the nondescript commuter campuses, whose students come to class and then disappear, that will lose out the most in the new environment, and I suspect that more of those are actually state schools.

The big crunch coming is more of the following: the costs for the social experience have grown to ridiculous levels and are not structured to handle the upcoming decline in the college-age population. How much of college tuition will end up going for marketing? The US News & World Report rankings, which favor high-tuition/high-aid schools have played a big role in that tuition rise; it isn't clear how much the upcoming hard competition for students will influence prices in the other direction.