The End of Universities…Or Not

On the heels of last week’s OESIS post, below are two recent articles with different, thought-provoking perspectives:

The End of the University As We Know It  predicts the ”financial collapse of numerous private colleges and universities.”  Author Nathan Harden asserts that when the college 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 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 is true? Because recent history shows us that the internet is a great destroyer of any traditional business that relies on the sale of information.”   (The bold is my addition. That last sentence needs to be fully digested).

Damon Linker, author of There Is No Education Bubble, takes a more moderate stance:
“After so much tumult, it’s only natural that pundits and prognosticators would attempt to look for the next bubble and predict when it’s likely to pop. That has led some to conclude that a combination of skyrocketing tuition and technology-driven innovations will soon lead to the collapse of the American university…It’s a gripping story. But it’s almost certainly wrong…If the point of attending a university were simply to acquire knowledge — and if we assumed, on the basis of the most minimal evidence, that virtual learning works just as well as classroom learning — then the answer to that question would be obvious. The trouble is that the value of a college education — the thing that leads the earnings of college graduates to remain quite high relative to those lacking a college degree — derives at least as much from the credential conferred upon graduation as it does from what students learn along the way.”

I strongly recommend reading both articles in full. These represent the core of the strategic debate about how to best prepare students for the future – a debate we must engage in here on the Hilltop.  A college counseling friend used to talk about how elite colleges “manufactured scarcity” (e.g. created excessive demand for their limited slots) in the 1980s and 1990s.  Now, it seems, online learning will mean colleges will have to “manufacture access” in order to survive, to say nothing of thrive.  They will compete to enroll more students rather than merely building applicant pools many times larger than their static enrollment.

Whether Harden or Linker is correct, it’s a fascinating debate.  Schools such as St. Luke’s will need to bet on one or the other, because we are preparing our students and families to enter the brave new world.

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