What does a college education buy you? A solid grounding in the liberal arts? The technical training to pursue a profession? A ticket to grad school? Four years of beer-soaked denial? A spouse?
It’s a complicated question with a lot of answers. Here’s a sharper question. What does a college education buy you that can’t be replaced with a free online education? Free online courses, often called MOOCs (for Massive Online Open Courses), have been making news lately, and for good reason. At first blush, it looks like you could cobble together a first rate college education for no money at all. And this at a time when college costs are skyrocketing. It seems reasonable to wonder if MOOCs are about to gut the Ivy League.
Now for the weird part. A college-level online course requires a lot of expertly assembled content. And who provides this content free of charge? I’ll tell you who: professors from expensive colleges. But wait! Doesn’t that mean they’re competing with themselves? Why should I pay $50,000 to Elite U. when I can watch the exact same instructors teach the same courses for free? Aren’t they in danger of putting themselves out of business?
Well, actually, no.
Colleges don’t worry about putting themselves out of business because they’re not selling an education. It sounds preposterous until you watch them rushing to give away their education. What they’re selling is a degree. They’re selling a brand. You can drink their wine all day as long as there’s a different label on the bottle.
You are welcome, encouraged even, to use Stanford courseware at a community college, but your diploma can’t mention Stanford. One way of thinking about this is the textbook analogy. There’s nothing surprising about using Professor Y’s textbook when you take Professor X’s class. So in the future you might also be using Professor Z’s lectures and exams. But at some point you have to ask yourself “What exactly is Professor X doing for me?” It’s another way of asking what exactly a college sells you. And ultimately you realize that the most important department in the university is Admissions.
You’re paying for your peers. Smart, well-connected, motivated peers that have been vetted by a selective admissions process. It’s the same with a good party. The bouncers make all the difference. You may never meet the hostess. But who cares as long as the place is rocking?
You’re paying to be stratified among your demographic cohort for the benefit of your future employers, and the diploma is the proof those employers will demand. The price is kept high by scarcity. There are only so many Harvard graduates every year. In a networked world, is that scarcity artificial? In a world of online courseware, we might suppose that Harvard could open up the sluiceways and churn out 100,000 graduates. Why not? The ultimate scarcity is supplied by Dunbar’s Number. You really want to get to know the peers that you paid to be with, and to do that, you really have to spend time with them. That will never be cheap.
Where does all this leave us? Will there be a revolution in the academy or not? Despite the prolonged shaking, the system stays largely intact. Elite universities will still be able to charge top dollar. The biggest shift comes in post-graduate continuing education and in pre-college secondary education. Admissions to elite universities gets harder, since everyone will have access to serious college classes before leaving high school. The quality and uniformity of education at all universities will go up dramatically. And the cost of non-elite institutions is sure to drop significantly.
It’s almost all good news for the average student, although we’ll need to watch out for the dangers of an educational monoculture.