This post turned into three so here is part 1!
Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.
As someone who works in higher education, I have a personal interest in what happens to the industry. Even so, I have approached this blog with an attitude of searching for the truth, even if it is uncomfortable. I think if you try to solve a problem without an open mind, you will exclude certain possible answers. Initially I started out trying to see how introducing technology into the classroom would change the pedagogy used. I began to see however that things weren’t adding up. As I looked at other industries that have been changed by technology, like the music industry or the newspapers, I saw industries that are totally transformed. The nature of this transformation, is far reaching, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and has a certain inevitable quality. It is also driven in many cases by forces from outside the industry. As James Burke illustrated in his TV show Connections, often times, a scientific advance can affect completely unrelated industries.
If we wish to make a new world we have the material ready. The first one, too, was made out of chaos.
With all this in mind let’s return to higher education. As I have been watching the rest of the world change with the Internet, I have come up with an idea called the Theory of Disaggregation. Briefly put, it means that the Internet’s primary effect on society is one of splitting apart information structures that were formed based on location. A school is a good example. The information was put in one place (in the form of books) and then people came from the surrounding area to learn. Of course with the Internet, the information is now in your pocket so things start to change.
So what has been happening in higher ed in the last few years and can we draw any conclusions?
It is inarguable that college has been getting much more expensive. Relative to the consumer price index, higher ed tuition has been rising much faster. This video is for a new book called The Higher Education Bubble. It lays out this problem in the beginning of the video. (it is done RSA style so is kind of fun!)
So what factors are going to contribute to the changes in higher education?
Sustained high unemployment especially among recent college grads is causing a reassessment of the traditional truism of higher education; if you get a degree you will get a good job. While that is true in some cases, it is no longer always true. (see Occupy Wall Street Is An Indictment Of Higher Education)
The dramatic growth in tuition is caused by economics. There has not been much capacity increase in the university system (not many new colleges have been built) and yet more and more people are trying to go to college. Economics say that when supply is held constant and demand goes up, then price goes up too. The government has made available a huge amount of low interest money which people dip into so it has sustained this inflationary period. (the exact same thing happened to the housing market but not to the degree of in education)
At some point one of two following things will happen: A) people will decide not to go into huge debt for a degree they don’t think will help them much. B) the government will decide it can’t keep borrowing vast sums of money and will cut back on student loan aid. Anyone who follows politics realizes that choice B is unlikely but choice A may very well happen.
The traditional model of a university is predicated on a scarcity of knowledge. When knowledge is bound in books it becomes a scarce resource, therefore schools can command a premium price for access. This is also an economic idea. If a resource is no longer scarce, then the price will fall.
In part two, we will look at the components of a university and see what actually has value that you can charge for.