will we see a post-campus america?

Last week, Megan McArdle envisioned a “post-campus America“. Not an unreasonable vision given the advantages of online schools and rising tuition. The larger context of her comments comes from the fact that MIT now offers online certifications. She comes up with 12 specific claims of events she believes will transpire in the context of increased productivity of higher education. Overall, I think that she identifies appropriate questions but I think that she comes to the wrong conclusion about some. She also assumes colleges and universities to be monolithic rather than substantially varied, which carries important implications for some of her conclusions. I address each below (claims directly quoted) and am interested in what others think.

  1. Education will end up being dominated by a few huge incumbents. McArdle predicts that a few MITs, Stanfords, and Harvards will dominate higher education. I think that she is correct — basic organizational ecology would predict so — but she misses how large incumbents will become dominant. She predicts incumbent dominance will emerge from increasing consensus regarding the meaning of online certificates; instead, I would argue that resource dependence will drive incumbent dominance because of the large costs of purchasing and deploying the appropriate technology.
  2. Online education will kill the liberal arts degree. I think that she is right on this account; but, I think that may be true in both online and brick-and-mortar education as a market approach dominates higher ed.
  3. Professors (course developers) will be selected for teaching instead of research brilliance. I think that this is true as well — and I think that it is a good thing for higher education. I’m not sure how different this is from what already occurs at almost all two-year institutions and a lot of four-year institutions, particularly small schools. Increasingly, universities hire adjuncts and contingent labor who are retained based on their teaching skills.
  4. 95% of tenure-track jobs will be eliminated. She predicts that the winners will grow to be enormous, but will not nearly offset the losses incurred by losing institutions. Sadly, I think that she is correct in principle, though I think that 95% is high unless she has a thirty year horizon (relying on attrition alone would make any number greater than 75% impossible).
  5. The end of universities as research centers.This is where I think that she is way off the mark because she does not know much about how universities work. There are two pieces to her argument: 1) tenured/tenure-track professors concoct an elaborate scam (her word) to bilk football fans into paying large sums of money to do work on whatever they want with no oversight; and 2) government-funded direct research renting labs from defunct universities with policy work being done in think tanks. I’ll ignore the great tenure scam argument since it’s a tired argument and not true on it’s face since most colleges and universities don’t have big-time football programs.

    The second part of her argument shows her ignorance of higher education. What she identifies as a future trend already exists on most research (and research-aspiring) campuses. As Fabio highlighted last year, we should consider most flagship universities to be federal universities. To be fair, this feeds McArdle’s larger point — that we will see a few top universities succeed and the rest fail — but for a far different reason than she identifies.

  6. Young job-seekers will need new ways to signal diligence. This one’s worth quoting in full:

    I’d expect to see a lot of free labor in the early years, something like what aspiring writers and visual artists already do with their blogs. There will be more freelancing, more try-out employment, and more unpaid internships.

    Yes, and I think that it is bad. Unpaid labor by another name is exploitation.

  7. The economics of graduate school will change substantially. Yes.
  8. Civil society will have to substitute for the intense friend networks that are built at college. This is again where I think that she gets it wrong. Parents with sufficient financial and cultural capital will see that their children get into college to form networks and build friendships. I don’t want to make a functionalist argument, but the university is one of the few institutions that provides a great deal of bridging potential. I think that it seems easy to replace the potential for these networks, but it will be nearly impossible to replicate.
  9. The role of schooling in upward mobility will change. She cops out here by not predicting a direction. I think that schooling will become a minimum — like the high school degree. If something becomes more ubiquitous, then it provides less distinction. Education itself will provide less opportunity for mobility. That said, the flexibility of online learning will, I think, open opportunities for students with other commitments (children, full-time jobs, etc.) that will allow more people to earn the credential.
  10. The young will have a much lower financial burden in their 20s. True. And I think that this is a good thing; whether the cost of losing social networks or the loss of distinction in a degree is worth the lower financial burden is another question.
  11. The tutoring industry will boom. With the loss of professors, she predicts tutors will fill the roles. This seems odd to me given her previous claim of less debt. If instead of being able to visit a professor or TA in office hours, I now have to pay a tutor, then the cost of education might start to equalize with brick-and-mortar universities. What is more, I don’t believe current student loan guidelines permit the use of loans for tutors, meaning even higher debt on the tutoring side for a service included in the cost of brick-and-mortar universities.
  12. If the credentials become valuable, cheating will be a problem. Ummm, yes? But cheating is a problem now, so I’m not sure what difference it will make.

There are a couple of obvious parts of a college education that she fails to consider, to the detriment of her argument. How will labs be taught for science and engineering courses? I would hope that a chemist’s college education would include some lab work that teaches them how to safely and correctly handle chemicals or a civil engineer builds something before she builds our bridges. The kinds of classes that most easily lend themselves to her model are liberal arts courses which are the very courses she predicts will disappear. Also, what about the ability to ask questions and understand the material? She would probably argue that questions would be answered through tutors, but reasonable points of disagreement exist in many fields. A tutor unconnected to the professor/”course developer” could lead to many potential problems.

She conflates flagship state universities (those with big football programs at least) as the modal type of institution. Instead, I predict that the universities and colleges at risk of failing are two-year community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, and regional state schools (football programs exist at some of those schools). I’m unsure how many of the benefits she proposes will come to pass since those institutions already hire professors to teach instead of conduct research, generally cost far less and lead to far lower levels of debt, and serve commuter populations. Meanwhile the top-tier (and probably even second-tier) private universities and state flagships already essentially rent space for government research, carry status that many middle-class parents (and students) will be willing to pay for, and currently possess the majority of resources required to become successful with new models.

Given the state and local financial crises, I see online education as a near-certain death-knell for community colleges and a likely one for small regional schools (e.g., the smaller Penn State and Cal State institutions), and will seriously challenge mid-sized regional schools (e.g., Eastern and Western Michigan, Towson and Salisbury in Maryland) so that many will survive but many will also fold. If tuition continues to increase everywhere, then people might simply opt out of a bachelor’s degree. A position that Fabio argues might be very rational. Then this spells trouble for small private universities without brand recognition that have even moderately high tuition. But I really see little trouble for universities riding high on the hogskin at state flagships.

7 thoughts on “will we see a post-campus america?”

  1. I see the strain for private liberal arts colleges, perhaps except for the most elite, which comes from a smaller market of students willing to pay ever rising tuition. But isn’t the problem for community colleges and state schools a bit different? It seems to me that legislators are deprioritizing education, basically choosing to choke off their funding. These are both very serious challenges to higher education, but have little to do with online education. I suppose I don’t disagree with many of the forecasts, but my preference would be to keep our eye on the source of the problem that is both the more direct cause of the threatened college/university system and the thing that we voters supposedly have some say about changing.


    1. Tina — perhaps I didn’t write the post as well as I wished because I agree with you (and meant to express that in the post). I agree that state funding (and county/local funding for community colleges) is the largest threat to community colleges; however, I think that prior to online education there was a somewhat captive market. Now, with the proliferation of online programs, community colleges must now also compete on price which they won’t be able to do without support of state/county/city governments. What I should have written:

      “Absent a renewed commitment to public higher education, particularly at the community college level, I see online education as being the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Those of us interested in education should focus on the root cause of changes in the market, not fancy ‘disruptive technology’.”

      This is why I think that her conflation of all colleges/universities into a single Big Ten or Ivy League mold misses the major point of the impact on education.


  2. Call me young and naive, but the first time I ever considered the end of the university as we know it – and a different world for academics like me – was an outdoor showing of Soylent Green during grad school. Since then, topics like this send me into a full-blown anxiety attack.

    That said, I agree with Tina that we need to look at the causes of these changes and continue working to address them.

    Also, as someone who attended community college, there are two distinct tracks. The first, which is getting an associates that will basically transfer into a four-year college is one that could easily move to exclusively online (along with the more online-oriented vocational degrees, like accounting or computing). In fact, many community college already offer a number of online courses. The second, though, is much like the sciences that you bring up and require substantial hands-on training – engineering, nursing, HVAC repair, mechanics, etc. I don’t see those disappearing any time soon (unless they’re eclipsed by the for-profit technical and continuing education colleges, which is much more likely).

    What bothers me most about this all is the immense inequality that will result. Online education might become more predominant, but, like you say, universities (and liberal arts degrees) won’t disappear. Instead, the people who can afford to go to them still will and get a qualitatively different experience, forging strong and weak ties, than their lower-class peers. Wealthy parents, educated themselves, will want their kids to have the college experience. While you’re right that non-traditional (and lower-class) students will have greater access to education if there’s increased flexibility, I think the credential will continue to be less valued.


  3. I don’t think there is actually any empirical evidence to suggest that online education will replace bricks-and-mortar education on the level that pundits such as this predict. It is not any cheaper, really; more importantly, in my own experience, a significant population of students (even tech-savvy ones) is unlikely to choose online options. I do think online will be likely to replace low-prestige professional masters degrees, and I do think the low-prestige privates have a lot of reasons to be scared, but I don’t think the rest of us are quite as likely to vanish any time soon.


    1. I agree for the reasons that I highlighted above. One thing that I do appreciate about her post is that she spelled out specific hypotheses about how change wouldn’t happen. Even if I disagree with her conclusions, I think that she deserves credit for clearly articulating reasonable and falsifiable hypotheses.


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