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The future of college may be virtual

Bricks-and-mortar universities should prepare for a jolt as high (and still rising) costs push students online.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / October 15, 2009

The Internet has caused sudden shifts in other industries, from the way people read news to the way they buy music or plan travel. Might higher education be nearing such a jolt?

Photo Illustration by Staff

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In many ways, education hasn’t changed much since students sat at the feet of Socrates more than two millenniums ago. Learners still gather each autumn at colleges to listen to and be questioned by professors.

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But the Internet has caused sudden shifts in other industries, from the way people read news to the way they buy music or plan travel. Might higher education be nearing such a jolt?

Aside from the massive dent put in their endowments by Wall Street’s woes, colleges and universities mostly have been conducting business as usual. Costs have soared compared with general inflation, but students still flock to classes.

Many have theorized that the Internet could give education a rude shock. Recently, an opinion piece by Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University in New York who once served as an Internet organizer for presidential candidate Howard Dean, put the possibility in dramatic terms.

“Students starting school this year may be part of the last generation for which ‘going to college’ means packing up, getting a dorm room, and listening to tenured professors,” she wrote in The Washington Post. “Undergraduate education is on the verge of a radical reordering. Colleges, like newspapers, will be torn apart by new ways of sharing information enabled by the Internet.”

She’s not the first to see newspapers moving from print to online and wonder whether something similar could happen to colleges. Online newspaper readers tend to seek out individual stories, not what papers as a whole have to say. Might finding the right class online become more important than which institution was offering it? What happens if colleges or even specialized online-only education companies provide essentially the same Economics 101 course? Does geography cease to matter and do low-cost providers win out?

Some think it could happen, perhaps sooner than expected. “Three years ago nobody thought the newspaper industry was going to collapse,” says Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, an independent education think tank in Washington, D.C.

Today, a college education is more than twice as expensive as it was in the early 1990s, even after adjusting for inflation.

“It’s getting worse all the time. There’s no end in sight,” Mr. Carey says.

Colleges “have set the bar pretty low for competitors” through a lack of competition, he says. At the same time, many potential students are being underserved. “We need more institutions that are good at serving working students, immigrant students, low-income students, students who are basically going to college because they want to get a credential and have a career,” he says.

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