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The Future of College Is Not As Bleak As You Think

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Few magazine editors—myself included—can resist a dash of apocalypse in a cover line, which is why I don't fault writer Graeme Wood for the question on the front of this month’s Atlantic: “Is College Doomed?” I'll answer that question anyway: no. The appetite for college is huge. A larger percentage of Americans are pursuing some sort of post-high-school degree than ever before—70 percent in 2009, compared to 45 percent in 1960—and that number keeps rising. Undergraduate education isn’t going away any time soon. 

Wood's article, actually titled "The Future of College?," is a profile of the Minerva Project, a new, low-cost, for-profit university that offers intensive seminars on a cool new online “proprietary platform.” It’s Ben Nelson, Minerva’s 39-year-old founder and CEO, who says that colleges as we know them are doomed, because his half-online, half-bricks-and-mortar university is going to disrupt and replace them. Wood is seduced by the prospect, although ultimately he doubts that Nelson could or even should succeed. In describing what makes Nelson’s pitch appealing, however, Wood accepts several premises about the dismal state of higher education that are now so widely held that perhaps he didn't feel it necessary to defend them. If the following three premises are true, then it is indeed possible that “a whole category of legacy institutions” will have to be liquidated, in Wood’s phrase. But they are not true.  

Undergraduate education is broken. 

In Wood’s words, undergraduate education is “one of the most sclerotic sectors of the U.S. economy.” The table of contents—for which Wood is not responsible, either—calls it “ripe for dissolution.” Whatever those phrases mean, there is no evidence that, on the whole, American colleges are failing or about to fail. According to Michael McPherson, the president of the Spencer Foundation, which funds education research, and his wife, Sandy Baum, an economist focusing on the financial aspects of higher education, it is true that administrators are more resistant to cost-cutting than they ought to be, given the popular outrage about tuition. And states are less willing to fund their own public universities than they used to be. Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s issued moderately negative reports on higher education in 2014, largely on account of the sluggish economy, but noted that strong long-term demand for a college degree and a reduction of household debt as the economy rebounds may soon improve the outlook. Nonetheless, traditional colleges look pretty strong, especially if you compare them to other “legacy” institutions, such as newspapers, which have shed 35 percent of their employees in the past ten years. There are two visibly weak sectors in higher ed: For-profit colleges, which are closing in droves, and small, middle- to lower-ranked liberal arts colleges, whose enrollments are dropping. “There are a lot of really tiny private colleges and it would not be unreasonable to think that a third of all private colleges could disappear,” says McPherson. “But that third, collectively, educates about 3 percent of people in America.”

Graduates are drowning in debt. 

“The crisis in student debt is greatly exaggerated,” says Baum. A college education is such a good investment for most of the people who complete theirs, she says, that “in just a couple of years, their earnings premium is likely to exceed everything they’ve borrowed plus interest.” A college degree costs less than most people think, because relatively few students pay the actual advertised tuition; three out of five undergraduates pay no more than $20,000 a year (including at private schools). And contrary to popular belief, student debt has not been skyrocketing. According to a 2014 report by the Brookings Institution, a graduate’s monthly payment on student loans “has stayed about the same or even lessened over the past two decades.” One reason student debt has occasioned so much alarm is that the economy is weak and students have a harder time finding jobs. Another reason is that debt has become an intolerable burden for one set of students: Those who take out loans but don’t graduate. There are many more of these than there are college graduates who can’t pay back what they owe. Many of the students destined to drop out, as it happens, are poor to begin with and suckered into borrowing more than they can afford by for-profit colleges that devote a great deal of energy to pushing loans on them. For borrowers who don’t graduate, as the New York Times’s David Leonhardt wrote in his article about the Brookings report, “college is akin to a house that they had to make the down payment on but can’t live in.” 

Professors can’t or won’t teach.

This assumption comes closest to being true. Teaching undergraduates is not a high priority at research universities, though the kind of liberal-arts colleges Nelson wants to put out of business do see undergraduate education as their core mission. The problem at universities is that professors have no incentive to become better teachers. They are evaluated and given tenure based on how much they publish, not on how they perform in the classroom. Moreover, they are never taught how to teach or design a syllabus; their mastery of a subject is considered qualification enough. 

Universities, aware that teaching on campus is spotty at best, have been setting up centers designed to improve instruction, but professors don’t take advantage of them because there is no reward for doing so.  There has been talk about how to fix this perverse state of affairs, though since research confers more prestige than teaching on universities as well as on professors, most universities have not taken these discussions nearly far enough. One obvious solution would be for tenure committees to assess how well a professor teaches as well as how much she publishes. Another would be to include teacher training in a graduate student’s education. A third would be to mandate a highly structured curriculum that professors have to be trained to teach.

However, Wood makes it sounds almost as though no one before Nelson has ever thought about any of this, and declares teaching at traditional universities to be an artifact of the past: “In the past half millennium, the technology of learning has hardly budged.” (By “technology of learning,” he means mainly lectures, but also the poorly managed, rambling seminars he remembers sitting through.) By framing the problem as a matter of technology, Wood anticipates Nelson’s technological fix. But teaching is not a technology. Teaching is dynamic and improvisational and demands finely tuned interpersonal skills. This is not to say that that those skills can’t be codified and taught or that the right software couldn’t support and enhance them. (See Elizabeth Green’s Building A Better Teacher for details.) But it’s hard to imagine any classroom technology that could make a bad teacher teach well. You can imagine one that could make his teaching mediocre. “There’s a huge difference between bad and mediocre,” McPherson points out. “You can laugh at PowerPoint, but one of the things PowerPoint is good at is taking really bad lecturing and making it mediocre.” However useful Minerva’s seminar software turns out to be, the school will still have to find or train good-enough teachers to use it, and that will be as expensive and difficult as it always is. 

And this brings us to a question Wood seems to have failed to ask: Whom will Minerva hire when it scales up from 33 students to 300 and more, and how will it pay for these professors while keeping tuition low? At universities, as in other service industries, the biggest fixed cost is labor. One imagines two possible scenarios. Either Minerva will pay princely sums to celebrity professors at fancy schools who will beam in a course now and then from their Gothic aeries. In other words, Minerva will piggyback onto universities  that attract top professors by letting them do research, the way news aggregators piggyback onto places like Times. But while that may solve the quality problem, those professors won't be able or willing to work as closely with their students as Nelson wants them to. So Minerva might wind up hiring underemployed and underpaid adjunct lecturers, like the notorious University of Phoenix. They’ll have the time to teach but they won’t teach well unless Minerva trains them to. Either scenario will cost a lot of money.