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The Sciences

Will the Internet Replace Universities?

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollApril 3, 2009 5:25 PM

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Via Brad DeLong, an article by Kevin Carey in the Chronicle of Higher Education starts with the obvious -- the internet is killing newspapers as we knew them -- and asks whether the same will happen to universities.

Much of what's happening was predicted in the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web burst onto the public consciousness. But people were also saying a lot of retrospectively ludicrous Internet-related things — e.g., that the business cycle had been abolished, and that vast profits could be made selling pet food online. Newspapers emerged from the dot-com bubble relatively unscathed and probably felt pretty good about their future. Now it turns out that the Internet bomb was real — it just had a 15-year fuse. Universities were also subject to a lot of fevered speculation back then. In 1997 the legendary management consultant Peter Drucker said, "Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics.... Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable." Twelve years later, universities are bursting with customers, bigger, and (until recently) richer than ever before. But universities have their own weak point, their own vulnerable cash cow: lower-division undergraduate education. The math is pretty simple: Multiply an institution's average net tuition (plus any state subsidies) by the number of students (say, 200) in a freshman lecture course. Subtract whatever the beleaguered adjunct lecturer teaching the course is being paid. I don't care what kind of confiscatory indirect-cost multiplier you care to add to that equation, the institution is making a lot of money — which is then used to pay for faculty scholarship, graduate education, administrative salaries, the football coach, and other expensive things that cost more than they bring in.

I'm not sure I buy it. Let's think about what good purposes a college or university might serve. Off the top of my head, I can think of several:

  1. Classroom-based education. Certainly important.

  2. Extracurricular learning. This includes everything from "participating in actual academic research" to "serving on the school newspaper."

  3. Meeting different kinds of people. Not only do students get exposed to professors, and an academic way of thinking about problems, but they also meet other students, hopefully from a wide variety of backgrounds.

  4. Establishing independence. For many people, going to college is the first time one lives away from home, and begins to establish an identity separate from one's family.

  5. Belonging to a community. From the university itself to numerous smaller subcultures within, college provides an opportunity to belong. As great as the Teaching Company is, it doesn't have a basketball team in the Final Four.

Feel free to add your own. We can argue whether online learning can be effective in replacing the first of these -- after all, hearing a recorded lecture is not the same as hearing it live. But it would appear very difficult to replace the others. The four years one spends at college are often the most formative (and perhaps the most enjoyable) years of one's life. It's not clear, of course, how much people are willing to pay for those other purposes, as important as they may be. On the other hand, there is a long-established bargain at big research universities that could conceivably come unraveled at the hands of the internet. Namely: it is research and scholarship that attracts the faculty and establishes the academic reputation of a school, but it is teaching that brings in students and tuition dollars. This is not an arrangement based entirely on avarice; the top research schools bring in a lot more money from grants and gifts than they do from student tuitions. But it reflects a deep philosophical split, that might signal an underlying instability: from within academia, the purpose of the university is seen as the production of new scholarship; from outside academia, the purpose of universities is seen as the teaching of students. In the case of newspapers, the internet made it harder to tightly bundle straightforward news with advertising and sections of the paper any one reader might not be interested in. In the case of universities, will the internet make it harder to bundle teaching and research? Quick, name the largest private university in the U.S. The answer is the University of Phoenix, founded in 1976, where 95% of faculty are part-time and the large majority of teaching happens completely online. It could happen that more education-providing corporations (one hesitates to call them "universities") could develop better ways to provide online classroom educations to a large number of students who are interested in the first purpose listed above but are unwilling to pay for the second. If that model catches on, it will cause dramatic upheaval in the economy of traditional universities. And, much as I love the internet, that would be too bad.

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