Future shock for colleges

They must cut costs and go online in a really big way

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A reader was irate that I criticized higher education in a recent column. She threatened to cancel her subscription if I were permitted to write another such.

Democrats dominate politically in large part because "liberals and those further left dominate our public schools, colleges and universities, Hollywood and the news media," I wrote in "The Right Will Rise," Nov. 25. Young people voted against their interests because of "incessant indoctrination."

The opportunity to break the liberal stranglehold on the dominant institutions of our culture may arise soon, I said, because "newspapers are technologically obsolescent. So are colleges and universities. Both will be shaken in the hard times coming."

I'm sorry the truth so offends that reader. But I intend to keep telling it.

For more than 20 years, the cost of attending college has risen twice as fast as the cost of health care, four times as fast as the cost of living, 20 times as fast as the wages of the average college graduate.

Much of the increase in health care costs is due to profound (but very expensive) advances in medical technology. American universities "represent declining value for money to their students," declared the Economist magazine Dec. 1.

In a study of 3,000 students at 29 colleges and universities, professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that after two years, 45 percent, and after four years, 36 percent "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning."

The average cost of a year at a public university last year was $17,131, according to the College Board. For a year at a private college, the average cost was $38,589. Most of the middle class would already be priced out were it not for the federal student loan program, which is of far greater benefit to faculty and staff.

Student debt has increased 511 percent since 1999. Americans have shed other forms of personal debt since the 2008 recession began, but student debt has increased 25 percent. Only half of recent graduates have full time jobs. There are as many student loan debtors as adults with bachelor's degrees.

The 90-day delinquency rate on student loan repayment has "gone parabolic," to quote Tyler Durden at zerohedge.com. If the economy falls back into recession next year, defaults will skyrocket.

The college bubble is about to burst. When it does, the carnage will be awesome, because the Internet has rendered the present structure of higher education obsolescent. When, with a few keystrokes, he can access the Library of Congress, a student needn't go to the library at State U to study. A student at a second- or third-tier college need not settle for inferior instruction when she can "virtually" attend lectures from the greatest experts in her field, wherever they might be.

The cost of a college education could be cut substantially, and its quality improved. But the opposite is happening, because taking full advantage of the Internet would permit -- would indeed require -- a dramatic reduction in the size of college faculty and staff. Since colleges and universities are run chiefly for the benefit of the faculty and administration, reform is bitterly resisted.

We like the old and familiar. We fear the unknown. Resistance to change in an institution is proportional to its insulation from market forces. In education, insulation has been profound. But eventually, reality intrudes. The chief consequence of delaying adaptation to it is typically a bigger crash when the crash inevitably comes.

The ability as well as the willingnessness of most Americans in the middle class to pay ever more for ever less is at, or near, the saturation point. But most in academia think the Democratic victory Nov. 6 means the student debt bubble can be inflated indefinitely. There's no need for reform -- at least not yet. The plunge in enrollment that's just around the corner will be a shock.

Some subjects -- especially in the hard sciences where a lot of lab work is required -- are not conducive to online instruction. Many students require the stimulation, motivation and supervision that can be provided only in actual -- as opposed to virtual -- classrooms. And there's much to be said for the socialization experience of campus life.

But the schools which weather the storm will be those which make it possible for students to do the equivalent of two to five semesters of work (depending on their major) online, and which provide ample and meaty online courses to satisfy requirements.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).


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