Universities Vanishing?

keller80By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

A recent article by Philip E. Auerswald suggests that colleges and universities must choose between evolution and extinction. He points to five recent trends:

  1. Students are not showing up for lectures anymore.
  2. Rising tuition costs are pricing more and more students out of higher education.
  3. Tightening credit markets make student loans more difficult and expensive to obtain.
  4. Alternative means to a college degree are becoming more numerous.
  5. Global corporations are more willing to accept graduates from alternative institutions.

These five dry trend statements mask the true underlying drivers, which are the interrelated forces of costs and technology. You might say the traditional colleges and universities have brought this problem upon themselves by setting tuition increases far beyond cost of living increases and even far beyond the increases in health-care costs. Although many students were already unable to afford a college education, these extreme increases have pushed even more to look at alternatives.

But recent advances in technology and their application to education are really driving the change. Today’s high school graduates haves been immersed in computer technology for their entire lives. They’re not interested in old-fashioned books or 19th-century style lectures. They’re also used to the idea that technology makes everything cost less. Why not their education too?

The tools are mostly in place already. Some instructors and some institutions have begun to experiment with and use them. The old higher-education course paradigms have become obsolete and continue due mostly to inertia. The speak-and-write model of teaching must give way to other modes of instruction. Most of all, though, schools have to find ways to provide a quality education without a Rolls-Royce price tag.

Post-secondary degrees will continue to be a ticket to better-paying jobs. Crippling college loans mean that the net pay for these jobs, after making loan payments, can be less than what you’d get with just a high-school education. College education must become more efficient. When you consider that I paid just $750 for my freshman tuition (long ago, admittedly) and graduated with just $1,000 of debt, you have to wonder how schools can justify their prices. That tuition, by the way, was paid to one of the top (some would say THE top) technical institutes in the United States.

I would not choose to have clones of the University of Phoenix all over the place. I’d rather see established, quality institutions of higher education change their approach to how they deliver their undergraduate learning services and what they charge for them. Others, here in the ETC Journal pages, have shown how to engage students and cause great learning without the usual high overhead. It’s time for these ideas to percolate to the top echelons of university and college administration and thence throughout the institution.

If we don’t do it domestically, then our college students will be taking courses from instructors located in India and China in the future. College professors probably think themselves immune from outsourcing. Welcome to the future where they’re not.

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