From the collapse of the housing market and the demise of such venerable investment banks as Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns to the culture-transforming rise of social media giants Facebook and Twitter, Americans have endured far more than their fair share of capitalism's creative destruction over the past decade. 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.
The story goes like this: College tuition, room and board, and fees have been climbing faster than the rate of inflation for years. With four years at many state schools costing north of $80,000 — and many private schools surpassing $200,000 — millions of students are racking up enormous debts. This, in turn, raises serious questions about the worth of the education these students receive for their money, especially with earnings of recent college grads heading downward.
But what if these students could learn just as much at a fraction of the cost? Until recently, this seemed like a fantasy. But technology has now made it possible for universities to offer massive open online courses (or MOOCs) for millions of students around the globe for minimal expense. As Thomas Friedman recently noted, Coursera (a company that partners with the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, UC Berkeley, and other schools) currently has 2.4 million students from around the world taking 214 courses online. EdX, a nonprofit run by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has likewise signed up 155,000 to take its first MOOC.
In a provocative cover story for the January-February issue of The American Interest, author Nathan Harden argues that MOOCs won't merely make a college education available to millions around the world who just a few years ago would never have had access to it. He claims that MOOCs will also drive vast numbers of American universities out of business. As Harden writes in his attention-grabbing opening paragraph:
In 50 years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist.... Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor's degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and 10 years from now Harvard will enroll 10 million students. [The American Interest]
The final assertion, about Harvard enrolling millions, gets to the core of Harden's contention: MOOCs will simultaneously open wide the doors of the most elite universities (the ones with the resources to develop and offer MOOCs) while also enabling them to thrive even more than they already do. As Harden writes, the students of tomorrow (or their parents) will quite sensibly ask themselves: Why "pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend Nowhere State University" when it's possible to "attend an online version of MIT or Harvard practically for free?"
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.
The credential — a four-year BA or BS degree — communicates to potential employers that a job applicant earned high enough grades and scores to be admitted to college in the first place, that she competed against peers in classes for several years, and finally that she completed a rigorously defined course of studies. What she learned in that course of studies is important. But so is the evidence of generalized intelligence, work ethic, and responsibility conveyed by conferral of the degree. This is especially true of degrees earned at highly selective institutions like Harvard and MIT. But in a country where fewer than 40 percent of those between 25 and 34 have earned any type of college degree, it's even true of graduates of Nowhere State University.
Universities know the value of the credentials they confer. That's why Harvard and MIT have made a point of creating a special second-tier credential ("certificates of mastery") for those who complete open online courses of study. In the strenuous competition for jobs, having earned those credentials certainly won't hurt — especially outside of the Western world, where a vanishingly small number have been exposed to any higher education at all. But they will confer far lower status on those who earn them than more traditional degrees earned in residence at universities for considerable expense.
In the coming years, high-cost/low-status schools will undoubtedly have a hard time, and some will surely go under. But nowhere close to half of traditional brick-and-mortar colleges will be driven out of business by MOOCs. Elites and aspiring elites at home and abroad will continue to pay a premium for a traditional education (and credential) from American universities. Meanwhile, schools that jump on the digital bandwagon and begin offering second-tier online degrees to those who could otherwise never attend an American college in person will contribute in a potentially revolutionary way to the dissemination of knowledge around the globe. They will also succeed in further enhancing their own status while tapping a potentially massive new revenue stream. (Small fees multiplied by millions add up fast.)
Creative? Absolutely. Destruction? Not so much.
Damon Linker is a senior writing fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test. You can follow him on Twitter: @DamonLinker.