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The Future of Higher Education

April 23, 2012

Lost in Rick Santorum’s feud with Barack Obama over the necessity for every American to receive a college education, are two very important questions. First, is college really a necessary preparation for a successful career inAmerica’s knowledge economy (soon to be an innovation economy)? Second, if it is, why is that? Why does a bachelor’s degree qualify someone to work in the modern economy?

In the midst of this politically charged debate comes the rise of the online university. Ventures like the Khan Academy, Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity, Coursera, and the Larry Summers-backed Minerva (which envisions itself as a potential rival to the Ivy League schools), aims to bring high-quality university education to the masses. The enrollment successes of these ventures have sparked a heated debate about the future of the traditional university. Critics of the old model wonder if it is still relevant in the age of the Internet and the democratic knowledge economy that has accompanied the rise of the web.

To understand this debate, we must first understand where our university model comes from. Only by delving into its origins can we make an educated judgment about its future. Then we must ask ourselves what it is that we want from a university.

History of the University

The roots of education for pay date back to ancient Athens. The so-called Sophists were philosophers and educators renowned for their skills in logic and rhetoric. Around the time of Socrates, the Sophists offered to teach these skills in return for payment. Some of them even became wealthy as a result. Their success, as well as their overarching philosophy, sparked a debate that would last hundreds of years. A sophist Isocrates, even published a speech in which he attacks the Sophists, claiming inconsistency between what they claimed to teach and what they actually taught. Thus, even as far back as ancient Greece, we have debated the merits of an education system based on class, riches, and access, and one that transforms the education of the soul and mind into a commodity to be bought and sold. We will return to Isocrates’s argument later, but we must first understand the medieval origins of the modern university.

The only thing missing is PowerPoint.

The modern university, indeed the word “university” itself, was born in medieval Europe in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. Derived from the Latin word “universitas,” the university was a guild, a “private [corporation] of students and teachers.” Such universities arose organically, although they had their origin in a well-defined curriculum that was already several hundred years old (the trivium and quadrivium). The medieval university also birthed the lecture; because of an insufficient number of critical texts, many teachers turned to reading from the book itself while their students copied this information down as notes. That this teaching method has survived into the twenty-first century either suggests its pedagogical usefulness or the powerful role tradition has played in shaping the modern university.

While the medieval university model underwent significant changes in the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras, specifically in its curriculum, the most sweeping changes to the university came in the nineteenth century. By the end of the Enlightenment, the traditional curriculum, along with its emphasis on the works and philosophy of Aristotle, had largely been replaced by the humanities. In the early nineteenth century, liberal ideas were rapidly transforming the university model. The Germans, inspired by the ideas of philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, organized universities whose goal was to emphasize student discovery and personal accountability. The man behind this idea, Wilhelm von Humboldt said of his model:

Just as primary instruction makes the teacher possible, so he renders himself dispensable through schooling at the secondary level. The university teacher is thus no longer a teacher and the student is no longer a pupil. Instead the student conducts research on his own behalf and the professor supervises his research and supports him in it.

We see our first image of the modern university, a place where academics are not required to teach, merely to guide.

This model prevailed until the 1960s. Since then, grade inflation has skyrocketed. The number of A letter grades given in 2008 was 43 percent of the total, a 28 percent increase over those numbers in 1960. The authors of that study suggested that originally, professors began giving out higher grades out of reluctance to give Ds and Fs. However, in the past two decades, grade inflation has only increased because of what the authors described as a “consumer-based approach” to education. Today’s students are consumers and the colleges themselves corporations. With grade inflation also come enormous costs. My alma mater, the University of Chicago, charges students $62,245 a year! No wonder then that national student loan debt now tops $1 trillion. Are our universities failing to serve the public good for their own profit?

The Online Revolution

In autumn 2011, Stanford University opened up three of its classes to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. One of the professors of these classes, Sebastian Thrun, marveled when over 160,000 students enrolled in his course. The experience shocked him enough that in January, Thrun quit his teaching position at Stanford and founded Udacity, a startup whose goal is to offer low-cost, high-quality education to people across the world. The online revolution was on.

However, Thrun is not a pioneer; Salman Khan’s Khan Academy, founded in 2006, has a stated goal of “providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere,” completely free of charge. In 2004 and 2005, Khan began posting mathematics tutorials on YouTube. While these were originally designed for his family, testimonials from Khan’s online “students” prompted him to quit his job and devote his full energy to online education. Today, the Khan Academy’s YouTube channel has over 140 million total views and over 300,000 subscribers. In just six years, Khan has significantly disrupted the traditional academic model, demonstrated the possibilities for low-cost education, and suggested a different academic future.

The online revolution has generated growing excitement for true disruption of the academic industry. Thrun put it this way: “Literally, we can probably get the same quality of education I teach in class for about 1 to 2 percent of the cost.” He acknowledges that the online model is no substitute for the importance of place and the traditional university, but the problem is that the traditional model is simply uneconomical. Online education, its supporters argue, may be the answer to the growing student debt bubble and so much more.


In March, I went into San Francisco to watch Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, deliver a speech on the future of the university. To my astonishment, Zimmer never once mentioned online courses. Instead, he obliquely defended the old model with vague statements about the quality of a “Chicago education,” statements loaded with implications about the humanities core and nostalgic visions of a glorious academic past. Chicago’s refusal to embrace the online revolution, may doom it to academic insignificance. Many of America’s best universities, including Princeton, Stanford, and MIT, have already decided to put many of their courses online, some of these schools in collaboration with existing online education organizations such as Coursera. Still, there is resistance.

A message for the traditional university.

Resistance to the online model shouldn’t surprise you; that model threatens the traditional university. In a future where credentials may be obtained through low-cost online courses, what value will there be for a $60k/year degree in English Literature (a question that many English majors are probably already asking themselves)? Academics like Zimmer may crow about the necessity of a liberal arts education in a modern society, but the onus is on them to prove its value. As universities have become more like corporations and have begun to treat their students like customers, they have also become more and more disconnected from their academic function within society. The modern university cannot both decry the rise of online education and continue to operate like a business. A cheaper, more economical alternative has emerged, and it threatens their business model. Like any business then, the university must adapt or die.

The Fight to Come

The battle lines are being drawn. Traditional universities are fighting for relevance in an era when few schools offer truly top flight education and many graduates are suffering from unemployment and crippling student debt. Unless schools begin to offer real value, beyond this abstract concept of elitism and exclusivity, they will sink into irrelevance.

Criticism of the current university model should not be taken as a ringing endorsement for the digital university (I will post some suggestions for higher ed reform later this week). However, online course providers like Udacity and Coursera offers a glimpse into a possible future for higher education. This is a future in which a bachelor’s degree decreases in economic value and course certification become the new must-have qualification. This may sound far-fetched – the bachelor’s is now an absolute requirement for high-level entry into the knowledge economy – especially since such a system threatens the aristocratic grip that America’s top universities have had on higher education for over one hundred years. But unless these schools adapt (and many of them already are doing so), they will witness their decline and the triumph of the new digital paradigm.

While it is easy to criticize the online model, with its myriad dropouts and technical challenges, it promises to radically democratize a traditionally elitist and anti-democratic model. It even promises to educate its students better than the traditional university does. Whether you find this change exhilarating or frightening, there is no denying that something has to give. Student loan debts now exceeds even credit card and auto loan debt. The old model for higher education threatens our livelihoods and cannot continue unchanged. The future of our economy and our nation depends on radical transformation.


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