Why Colleges and Universities are becoming Extinct

The 18-year-old who recently left for the fall term might be one of a last crop of students to go to college the traditional way. Historically, this has meant lugging a carful of clothes to a tiny shared dorm room and listening to the world’s greatest brains in lecture halls that hold hundreds of degree seekers.

“Going to college” as most Americans know it is changing, and changing fast. Undergraduate education will never be the same. The business model for all private colleges except the most elite is about to become extinct. According to Zephyr Teachout, writing in the September 13, 2009 Washington Post, the reason why is just one word: money.

It’s simply much cheaper for colleges and universities to produce online classes instead of continuing down the path of residential education. They look with envy at community colleges and proprietary schools that teach technology. Both categories of schools have excelled to varying degrees with dorm-free education. Many of them have structured curricula to allow students to even avoid commuting by taking online classes.

Most major universities already offer quite a few core courses online. One of the newest trends in post-high school education is what’s known as an aggregate provider. This is an organization that offers a consortium of sorts to earn a college degree. Students take distance education courses offered by a variety of colleges and universities online in order to graduate.

How all these changes affect funding academic research, financial aid and the idea of tenured faculty versus adjuncts teaching a course or two remains to be seen. Mentally flash forward a decade. The students you’ll find will most likely complete all their coursework online, including take-it-yourself exams. They’ll communicate with their peers – who might be 30 years older or younger than they are – courtesy of electronic bulletin boards. And you can largely forget textbooks, because all the required academic literature will be available on the bulletin board.

What will happen to the quality of instruction? Nobody can accurately speculate yet. But just picture the zillions of doctoral students who are eager to work for a lot less than the tenured professors of yesteryear demanded.

Cheaper instruction translates into cheaper tuition. So does the lack of a need to erect classroom space. As more colleges and universities decide to jump into the competition, prices will continue to fall for years.

How this shift in educational models will be received by the workplace remains conjecture. Educators believe that instead of today’s common practice of signing up for four or five classes each term, tomorrow’s students will probably opt for one at a time. This gives them time to work and earn as they learn.

The Post speculates that the typical faculty member 20 years from now will be an adjunct teaching alone of out his or her apartment. This instructor will most likely take advantage of a recycled syllabus for each course and communicate from perhaps a continent away from many of the students.

Just as there will probably always be a liberal arts degree, elite colleges such as the Ivies will most likely keep their old way of offering an education far longer than schools of less polish. Eventually, though, they’ll probably partner with at least some of these schools or be forced to close their physical plants due to cost.

Will students be winners or losers? On the one hand, tomorrow’s students might receive a much less rigorous education if taught solely by adjuncts from afar and with little or no face-to-face contact with their peers. However, the trend toward a new educational model will certainly bring great courses to students who could never have had access to them on a college campus.