From the Chronicle of Higher Education, Monday, December 17,
For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?
'Disruptions' have the buzz but may put higher education out of
reach for those students likely to benefit the most
By Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk
Last year, leading lights in for-profit and nonprofit higher education
convened in Washington for a conference on private-sector innovation
in the industry. The national conversation about dysfunction and
disruption in higher education was just heating up, and panelists from
start-ups, banking, government, and education waxed enthusiastic about
the ways that a traditional college education could be torn down and
rebuilt-and about how lots of money could be made along the way.
During a break, one panelist-a banker who lines up financing for
education companies, and who had talked about meeting consumer demands
in the market-made chitchat. The banker had a daughter who wanted a
master's in education and was deciding between a traditional college
and a start-up that offered a program she would attend mostly
online-exactly the kind of thing everyone at the conference was
For most parents, that choice might raise questions-and the banker
was no exception. Unlike most parents, however, the well-connected
banker could resolve those uncertainties, with a call to the CEO of
the education venture: "Is this thing crap or for real?"
In higher education, that is the question of the moment-and the
answer is not clear, even to those lining up to push for college
reinvention. But the question few people want to grapple with is, For
whom are we reinventing college?
The punditry around reinvention (including some in these pages) has
trumpeted the arrival of MOOC's, badges, "UnCollege," and so
on as the beginning of a historic transformation. "College Is
Dead. Long Live College!," declared a headline in Time's
"Reinventing College" issue, in October, which pondered
whether massive open online courses would "finally pop the
tuition bubble." With the advent of MOOC's, "we're
witnessing the end of higher education as we know it," pronounced
Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, in The Boston
Globe last month.
Read beneath the headlines a bit. The pundits and disrupters, many of
whom enjoyed liberal-arts educations at elite colleges, herald a
revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or
their children, but for others: less-wealthy, less-prepared students
who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college
"Those who can afford a degree from an elite institution are
still in an enviable position," wrote the libertarian blogger
Megan McArdle in a recent Newsweek article, "Is College a Lousy
Investment?" For the rest, she suggested, perhaps apprenticeships
and on-the-job training might be more realistic, more affordable
options. Mr. Aoun, in his Globe essay, admitted that the coming
reinvention could promote a two-tiered system: "one tier
consisting of a campus-based education for those who can afford it,
and the other consisting of low- and no-cost MOOC's." And in an
article about MOOC's, Time quotes David Stavens, a founder of the MOOC
provider Udacity, as conceding that "there's a magic that goes on
inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that
bubble, is wonderful."
But if you can't, entrepreneurs like him are creating an
industrialized version of higher education that the most fervent
disruptionists predict could replace mid-sized state institutions or
less-selective private colleges. "I think the top 50 schools are
probably safe," Mr. Stavens said.
A 'Mass Psychosis'
Higher education does have real problems, and MOOC's,
badges-certificates of accomplishment-and other innovations have
real potential to tackle some of them. They could enrich teaching, add
rigor, encourage interdisciplinarity, reinforce education's real-world
applicability, and make learning more efficient-advances all sorely
But the reinvention conversation has not produced the panacea that
people seem to yearn for. "The whole MOOC thing is mass
psychosis," a case of people "just throwing spaghetti
against the wall" to see what sticks, says Peter J. Stokes,
executive director for postsecondary innovation at Northeastern's
College of Professional Studies. His job is to study the effectiveness
of ideas that are emerging or already in practice.
He believes that many of the new ideas, including MOOC's, could bring
improvements to higher education. But "innovation is not about
gadgets," says Mr. Stokes. "It's not about eureka moments.
... It's about continuous evaluation."
The furor over the cost and effectiveness of a college education has
roots in deep socioeconomic challenges that won't be solved with an
online app. Over decades, state support per student at public
institutions has dwindled even as enrollments have ballooned, leading
to higher prices for parents and students. State funds per student
dropped by 20 percent from 1987 to 2011, according to an analysis by
the higher-education finance expert Jane Wellman, who directs the
National Association of System Heads. States' rising costs for
Medicaid, which provides health care for the growing ranks of poor
people, are a large part of the reason.
Meanwhile, the gap between the country's rich and poor widened during
the recession, choking off employment opportunities for many recent
graduates. Education leading up to college is a mess: Public
elementary and secondary systems have failed a major segment of
society, and the recent focus on testing has had questionable
Part of the problem is that the two-tiered system that Mr. Aoun
fretted about is already here-a system based in part on the
education and income of parents, says Robert Archibald, an economics
professor at the College of William and Mary and an author of Why Does
College Cost So Much?
"At most institutions, students are in mostly large classes,
listening to second-rate lecturers, with very little meaningful
faculty student interaction," he says. "Students are getting
a fairly distant education even in a face-to-face setting."
If the future of MOOC's as peddled by some were to take hold, it would
probably exacerbate the distinction between "luxury" and
"economy" college degrees, he says. Graduates leaving high
school well prepared for college would get an even bigger payoff,
finding a place in the top tier.
"The tougher road is going to be for the people who wake up after
high school and say, I should get serious about learning," Mr.
Archibald says. "It's going to be tougher for them to maneuver
through the system, and it is already tough."
That's one reason economists like Robert B. Reich argue for more
investment in apprentice-based educational programs, which would offer
an alternative to the bachelor's degree. "Our entire economy is
organized to lavish very generous rewards on students who go through
that gantlet" for a four-year degree, says the former secretary
of labor, now a professor of public policy at the University of
California at Berkeley. As a country, he says, we need to "expand
our repertoire." But it's important that such a program not be
conceived and offered as a second-class degree, he argues. It should
be a program "that has a lot of prestige associated with
With few exceptions, however, the reinvention crowd is interested in
solutions that will require less public and private investment, not
more. Often that means cutting out the campus experience, deemed by
some a "luxury" these days.
Less Help Where It's Needed
Here's the cruel part: The students from the bottom tier are often the
ones who need face-to-face instruction most of all.
"The idea that they can have better education and more access at
lower cost through massive online courses is just preposterous,"
says Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University.
Seventy percent of her students are eligible for Pell Grants, and 50
percent come from the broken District of Columbia school system. Her
task has been trying to figure out how to serve those students at a
college with the university's meager $11-million endowment.
Getting them to and through college takes advisers, counselors, and
learning-disability experts-a fact Ms. McGuire has tried to convey
to foundations, policy makers, and the public. But the reinvention
conversation has had a "tech guy" fixation on mere content
delivery, she says. "It reveals a lack of understanding of what
it takes to make the student actually learn the content and do
something with it."
Amid the talk of disruptive innovation, "the real disruption is
the changing demographics of this country," Trinity's president
says. Waves of minority students, especially Hispanics, are arriving
on campus, many at those lower-tier colleges, having come from schools
that didn't prepare them for college work. "The real problem here
is that higher education has to repeat a whole lot of lower
education," Ms. McGuire says. "That has been drag on
Much of the hype around reinvention bypasses her day-to-day challenges
as a president. "All of the talk about how higher education is
broken is a superficial scrim over the question, What are the problems
we are trying to solve?" she says. The reinvention crowd has
motivations aside from solving higher education's problems, she
suspects: "Beware Chicken Little, because Chicken Little has a
vested interest in this. There is an awful lot of hype about
disruption and the need for reinvention that is being fomented by
people who are going to make out like bandits on it."
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the
University of Virginia and a frequent commentator on technology and
education, believes that some of the new tools and innovations could
indeed enhance teaching and learning-but that doing so will take
serious research and money.
In any case, he says, the new kinds of distance learning cannot
replace the vital role that bricks-and-mortar colleges have in many
"To champion something as trivial as MOOC's in place of
established higher education is to ignore the day-care centers, the
hospitals, the public health clinics, the teacher-training institutes,
the athletic facilities, and all of the other ways that universities
enhance communities, energize cities, spread wealth, and enlighten
citizens," he says. "Not only is it not about the classroom,
it is certainly not just about the direct delivery of information into
people's lives. If that's all universities did, then publishing and
libraries would have crushed universities a long time ago."
Unfortunately, Mr. Vaidhyanathan says, the discussion of college
reinvention represents a watering down of higher education's social
contract-a process that has been in the works for decades.
"What it is going to take to reinvigorate higher education in
this country," he says, "is a strong political movement to
champion research, to champion low tuition costs as a policy goal, to
stand up against the banks that have made so much money lending for
student loans, and to reconnect public institutions to their sense of
"That is going to be a long process," he says. "It has
taken 20 years to press universities down into this cowering pose, and
it is going to take 20 assertive years to get back to the point where
Americans view American higher education the way the rest of the world
SIDEBAR ILLUSTRATION: David Schwen for The Chronicle
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
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Mail Code 4610
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