The Future of Universities

Berkeley-UniversityWe’ve already seen technology and the Internet completely transform a number of industries. The most common example talked about is what digital photography and then cellphone cameras have done to companies like Kodak. And other industries, like music and newspapers, have been transformed and are very different companies than they were just a few years ago.

As I look into the near future I have to wonder if universities are not next on the list. Almost all of the pieces are in place today to start to replace them. Universities are ripe for a change. A degree in the US has grown to become incredibly expensive and the cost of education has grown far faster than inflation. I recall tuition at the University of Maryland to be $700 per year in the early 70s. Some states were even cheaper and at that time the tuition at the University of Texas was $50 per semester. Money was not a road block to anybody who really wanted to go to college and one could earn most of your tuition through summer and part time jobs.

But today a college education is far more expensive. Using those same two schools, the tuition at the University of Maryland is now $5,400 per semester for a resident and $16,000 for a non-resident. The University of Texas is similar with tuition varying by major, but averaging about $5,000 per semester for a resident and $18,000 per semester for a non-resident. By the time you add in books and tons of fees and living expenses, college is far more expensive than it was in the past. And of course, private colleges are even more expensive.

A large percentage of students have to get student loans today, and the US News and World Report said that the average student loan today at the end of school is a little over $30,000. I can’t remember anybody getting a student loan in the early 70s and I don’t even know if such loans existed then. The bottom line is that going to college has become an economic burden and a significant portion of students have to finance their degrees.

Meanwhile, there has been a lot of progress in creating on-line college courses. Organizations like edX, Coursera, Udacity, Saylor, and OLI have developed significant number of online courses. Most of the courses offered are not yet accredited to provide college credits, but the trend is towards getting accreditation and one would expect within a few years that there will be mountains of for-credit content available online. There are also numerous universities developing this content and it’s not unusual these days to be able to take nearly all parts of some graduate degrees online.

Over time these many online courses will be sequenced into degree programs and will become the equivalent of a college degree. Interestingly, much of the content will be self-paced and the ambitious student will be able to complete many courses quickly if the material is easy for them.

One of the important parts of taking college is having lectures from qualified professors, and in the online world there will probably be an improvement in the caliber of the teachers over what many people experience in college today. The better lecturers will draw more students and students will be able to pick lecturers who appeal to them. There will become superstar professors that attract mountains of students.

There are some things that can’t be taught online like Chemistry labs or biology dissection, and so there will have to be places for students to get access to hands-on teaching when needed. But there are many degrees that really don’t require much live work and one can envision programmers, history majors, and others taking their entire degrees online. And there are courses that require a lot of interaction, but that can happen online also with smaller class sizes for selective classes and individual interaction, at a price.

Online universities are also going to open up learning to the whole world. One of the biggest draws of the US today is from students around the world who want to partake in our superior college degree experience. But when that same content is available online there will be billions of potential students who can tackle and master what we teach. This is certainly going to raise the level of education worldwide.

I suspect there will continue to be live campuses for a long time for those who want to pay extra for the college ‘experience’, but over time that will become more and more expensive and something that only the rich will indulge in.

Taking education will dramatically change the education industry. One can picture college sports fading away. One can envision that everybody will be allowed to try college courses and we will no longer screen for those who didn’t have the motivation when younger to apply themselves. Online learning will not have age limits and students from the very young to the very old will be wading into credit courses. Education can become a lifetime experience and available to all at any time. It will be an interesting transition to watch, but it is surely coming. And at some future point what we think of as college will large be a quaint memory of the past.

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