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A Much-Needed Challenge to Low-Quality Universities

Like global warming, the growth of online higher education is the kind of trend whose steady progress will ultimately change the world. Just take a look at the latest numbers: The annual Sloan Consortium report on online education in the United States was released last week, finding that 6.1 million American college students took at least one online course in Fall 2010 (that’s a half million more than 2009) and that nearly one-third of all college students are learning online now (up from less than 10 percent in 2002). And the transformative advances of our higher education entrepreneurs—showcased last month in Philadelphia at the annual higher education technology conference EDUCAUSE—are evident to anyone who bothers to look.

But you would have trouble finding any of this acknowledged in our elite media, or in the halls of power in state capitals and Washington, D.C. As the world changes rapidly around them, many of our top thinkers and policymakers are out of touch, living in a world where most people graduate from high school at age 18, move into a dorm in August, and emerge with a bachelor’s degree four years later. It’s a misunderstanding that cuts across political parties and ideologies, to the detriment of all well-intentioned reformers. But it’s progressives who ought to be most sensitive to the urgency of the situation. After all, the greatest victims of their ongoing myopia are the country’s least fortunate students.

AS EARLY AS the Internet mania of the late ’90s, higher education has been singled out as ripe for a technology-driven revolution. And looking back at the grandiose predictions of the time, it’s fair to say that such claims deserve a dose of skepticism. In 1997, for instance, legendary management guru Peter Drucker predicted that “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.” Fourteen years later, the big universities are bigger and (after a stellar year for endowment investments) richer than almost ever before.

But what we’ve also learned during that time is that some correctly apocalyptic predictions take longer to come true than others. The newspaper industry thrived for nearly a decade after the dot-com boom, and then collapsed. didn’t push Borders into the grave in 1999—it took until 2011. Unlike publishing, music, retail, travel, and other industries, higher education enjoys unusual protection from competition in the form of public subsidies and regulations that limit who is allowed to sell credits and degrees. The industry has also accumulated an immense amount of built-up public goodwill. So it’s unsurprising that traditional institutions are holding on—for now. But as Drucker also noted: 

Do you realize that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of health care? And for the middle-class family, college education for their children is as much of a necessity as is medical care—without it the kids have no future. Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. 

That was long before health care price increases were commonly understood to be the single most destabilizing force threatening the federal government’s long-term financial solvency. College prices, meanwhile, have increased faster than health care prices since. A few weeks ago, the College Board announced that public university tuition rose by 8.3 percent in 2011, more than double the rate of inflation. This has been the trend for decades. Drucker’s underlying diagnosis, in other words, was perfectly accurate—the question is when, not if, these unsustainable trends will end. 

The consequences of technology-driven economic disruption will vary widely by institution. Elite institutions are mostly in the business of running high-stakes admissions tournaments and access to ruling-class acculturation as sideline endeavors that support their primary function of managing highly-leveraged hedge funds that pay for academic research. The fact that Yale and Carnegie Mellon won’t be threatened by the development of high-quality, low-cost online courses is amply demonstrated by the fact that both universities are currently giving away access to online courses they have developed, for free. 

Liberal arts colleges that specialize in providing small class sizes and intense, sometimes-idiosyncratic learning environments are also likely to endure in their present form. There’s no substitute for the alchemy of the traditional residential college experience where students and scholars live and work together in the pursuit of learning. 

But the reality of higher education is that most students today don’t have access to such an idyllic (and expensive) college experience, never have, and never will. Instead, many get stuck in big, low-cost lecture courses of indifferent quality provided by institutions that treat students like anonymous tenants. Those are the places that are going to be transformed by technology. 

These disruptions will take many forms. While it’s impossible to predict exactly what the typical college student’s educational experience of the future will look like, the changes will almost definitely include a decline in the number of students living in or commuting to physical locations to attend classes. Instead, students will accumulate credits from a range of different online providers, each specializing in different subjects and programs. Some firms will focus on tutoring, some on career counseling, some in assessing knowledge and skills. Students will increasingly use the fast-growing library of free content being generated by the Open Educational Resources movement. The component parts of the traditional conglomerate university will be picked off by specialty providers, just as newspapers have seen different pieces of their business model attacked by Craigslist (classifieds), blogs (op-eds), Groupon (local advertising), and more. 

The institutions likely to get hit earliest and hardest include a lot of relatively non-selective regional four-year universities, many of which are continuing to raise prices in vain attempts to climb the U.S. News & World Report status ladder. They also include many high-flying for-profit institutions. The brave new world of online higher education isn’t necessarily one where everyone goes to the University of Phoenix. Publicly-traded for-profits like Phoenix, Kaplan University, Corinthian, and others have been successful primarily through innovations in marketing, business processes, harvesting federal financial aid dollars, and scale. Their actual educational programs, even those conducted online, are often quite traditional—and expensive. When technology does to higher education what it has done to scores of other industries—empower consumers, create new markets, and rip huge amounts of cost out of the system—the least innovative for-profits could be the first to fall. 

Progressives, many of whom are likely to have graduated from (and have fond memories of) idyllic and selective traditional schools, tend to take one look at the broad contours of such a revolution and shudder. As one Daily Kos diarist wrote

I will say straight out that I am grateful for my place-based education, and grateful that nobody tried to take it away from me, stick me in front of a One Laptop Per Child screen, and call it an ‘equivalently’ rigorous experience. 

But the growth of online higher education is something that progressives should embrace and work to make happen sooner rather than later. The students attending existing for-profits and less selective traditional institutions are disproportionately first-generation college students from lower-income, minority, and immigrant backgrounds. Graduation rates at many of these institutions are atrocious and students are increasingly being saddled with unmanageable debt. Recent studies show that college learning results, particularly for minority students, are often terrible. These are, in other words, precisely the students progressives should care most about, people who are desperately in need of a good education at a reasonable price and who will form the heart of the future electorate. A good example of the kind of initiative progressives should support—in the face of for-profit textbook corporations currently trying to fight it—is the new federal program providing $2 billion to community colleges to develop online course materials available to everyone, for free, under a Creative Commons license. 

In many ways, this whole endeavor is still in its infancy. But the future is promising. Events like EDUCAUSE show how quickly the industry is adapting technologies that can help students in need. New technologies are being developed to solve problems like test security, while open-source learning platforms like Moodle are driving down structural costs of online learning environments. Start-up companies are developing new ways of personalizing learning experiences for students and developing artificial intelligence-driven programs that give students feedback on their progress and adjust instruction accordingly. And, best of all, U.S. Department of Education studies already show that students do as well or better in online courses relative to face-to-face instruction. 

Of course, some of the claims being made on behalf of online education are overblown. Not all students will be able to access online learning opportunities or thrive in virtual classrooms. But the trends are all moving in the same positive direction. The IT revolution has upended established power structures in politics and industry, injecting new vitality into staid businesses and democratizing access to knowledge and influence. College students, especially the least well-off among them, will be better off when the same forces are realized in higher education. And it should be progressives who are working to make that happen.

Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C.