Will online learning destroy America’s colleges?

Some parts of the American university system work well for their students. The rest are ready for disruption.

The American college system is staggeringly large: 2,421 four-year institutions enroll about 18.5 million college students. The proportion of Americans with a bachelor’s degree is at an all-time high — a social victory if they’re able to enjoy a positive return on their degrees, which the Pew Research Center estimates at about $550,000 on average.

And the very existence of that system is threatened, as we are to believe it, by the massive open online course, or MOOC, offered by new ventures from the likes of Stanford, Harvard and MIT. In an essay last week, Clay Shirky compared universities and MOOCs to record companies and Napster: in both cases, the incumbents operated by providing something inconveniently and locally that could be provided conveniently and universally on the web. I don’t agree with the entire essay, but Shirky is absolutely right to point out that the college industry is made up of several markets, and they’ll be disrupted in different ways.

American higher education is deeply divided: it’s outstanding for a relative small handful of students and pretty bad for everyone else. The disruption of MOOCs will likely start at the bottom and move up from there. The question on which we should meditate is: how far up will it move?

Admission rate is a crude way of judging college quality, but it’s available consistently and implies something about the way the market sees a school. There are 2,421 bachelor degree-granting institutions in the U.S. and, according to the College Board (PDF), only 60 of them (2%) accept fewer than a quarter of their applicants (this includes most of the country’s famous schools — Harvard through Notre Dame). But 47% of those 2,421 schools admit more than three quarters of their applicants or have no admission standards at all; 82% of full-time undergraduates attend a school that admits more than half its applicants.

And the educational experience at the least-competitive schools is dismal: 87% of students at the most competitive schools finish their degree in six years or less; 29% of students at open-admission schools finish their degrees in the same period. Even at the 50-75% admission rate schools (a third of all colleges, enrolling 42% of undergrads), 39% of students either drop out or take longer than six years to finish.

That experience at the bottom is ready for destruction. Think of the student deciding between Pace University and a MOOC — maybe a low-cost, non-degree certificate from MIT is worth only 10% of what a degree from MIT is worth in terms of pure return, but maybe a degree from Pace is worth only 20% of what a degree from MIT is worth. Given the difference in cost (tuition, room, board, and fees at Pace amount to $51,364 per year), that certificate from MIT could look compelling, depending on what you’re looking for in the way of a college experience. And if attitudes toward MOOC certificates change, maybe a certificate from MIT starts moving up toward 50% of the value of an MIT degree, and threatens, say, Tulane.

I think Harvard and its peers are safe for the time being, but the vast majority of U.S. colleges aren’t, and even the middle and lower schools in the top tier could be threatened pretty quickly. (That said, there’s a bit of a disconnect at the moment between what Stanford and MIT offer online and what students at expensive, low-tier universities study. Students who enroll in the University of Phoenix’s software engineering program follow a much more applied curriculum than MIT’s computer science students, and even MIT’s high-achieving students find their program challenging.)

Top-tier schools that survive the spread of MOOCs could find themselves subject to new costs and transformations by the creation of a star system for faculty, in which popular teachers will have an international audience. Coursera’s terms of service explicitly prohibit the use of its courses for credit at any university, but it’s easy to imagine that changing at some point — that a University of Florida student could get credit at her school for taking a Stanford computer science class via Coursera. If that happens, Stanford and its vaunted faculty stand to gain; why take a University of Florida CS survey when its famous counterpart at Stanford is available instead? Either way, you’re attending non-interactive lectures (or, increasingly, watching recordings online after sleeping through class) and having your work graded by teaching assistants.

None of this is to suggest that our whole higher-education system will collapse as high school students make careful ROI calculations and elect an online education over four years of seminars in the wood-panelled offices of famous dons. My own liberal-arts education at the University of Chicago was illuminating, and I’d do it over again in a heartbeat — math and economics, with some Greek, history, comparative literature and physics on the side. I’m profoundly fortunate to have had that education available to me.

I think there will be a market for that sort of education for a long time — and, indeed, the giant endowments of the country’s top universities make this kind of education available to an increasingly wide audience. But that’s not really representative of the whole landscape of higher education today; the widest possible grouping of liberal arts majors encompasses only about 40% of college students, and that figure includes tens of thousands of students in majors like biomedical sciences and “science technologies” that are likely applied in their approach.

Students who want a career-focused degree, on the other hand, are already making an ROI calculation of sorts, although it’s not necessarily free of influence from friends and cultural expectations. They make up the vast majority of college students, and they’re ready to be converted.

(Full disclosure: my father is a dean at the University of Virginia, which went through an upset last summer centered in part on the future of the university in the context of online learning. The views in this post are entirely my own.)

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  • http://www.digitalpentagon.com/ Pete Modigliani

    Jon – Interesting piece, though I would challenge your credibility assessments of a university based on acceptance rates and the percent complete in 6 years. It is these metrics which drive flawed strategies by universities to invest and focus in the wrong areas. The costs for universities have far outpaced the value they provide and the outmoded degree requirements further drive the need for online degrees. An interim solution could be a hybrid of courses in class and online. Most degree programs as you highlight are not career focused which is the biggest failure of universities today.

    • http://twitter.com/JonBruner Jon Bruner

      I agree with you on the dangers of using acceptance and completion rates, but they’re among the very few quality-related metrics that are collected by the DoE for every college in the country, so I’m afraid we’re stuck with them for the time being. I’m just using both as a way to illustrate skewness in higher education: there are a handful of colleges that everyone has heard of, and they’re very different from just about every other college.

      Of course, MOOCs change the acceptance-rate calculation entirely, and insofar as they’re not offering full degrees so far, completion rates aren’t a useful way to talk about them either.

  • Rhabyt

    You are missing something if you think that online classes will provide an improvement in graduation rates. For any group of students, from Stanford to Univ of Phoenix to enormous state universities, online classes have higher drop out rates than classroom classes. That is, online students are more likely to drop out of the class, and are more likely to drop out of the university. I think MOOCs are a great experiment and there is probably a place in the online educational system for classes with an 80 to 90% dropout rate. But I’d bet a lot of money that online education and MOOCs don’t take more than 10% of the undergraduate student degrees in the next 20 years.

  • Pshea99

    The six year degree completion statistic ignores so much that its not only misleading, its meaningless. A huge percentage of higher education students are in “open enrollment” community colleges where there the culture is very far removed from both elite residential colleges and average four-year public institutions. The goals of these students are often quite different from those of their peers at 4 year colleges and included updating skills, “trying” college, and for some, completing a degree. So for the many millions of students in 2 year institutions the statistics are utterly skewed. At present the value choice is not only between a course at MIT and a degree at Pace as the author implies. A credit bearing course at community college, while often disregarded by those who see higher education through the elite-only lens may actually be a better option than a certificate from a course offered by, but not recognized as credit bearing from MIT. At least for the moment…

  • Pshea99

    One more thing, “And if attitudes toward MOOC certificates change, maybe a certificate from MIT starts moving up toward 50% of the value of an MIT degree, and threatens, say, Tulane.”

    Check the math here. I’m confused about how the value of a course (which is the unit that is currently reflected in the edX MOOC certificate) could rise to 50% of the value of an MIT degree (which is typically 30-40 courses at the undergraduate level). Why would a single, non-credit bearing course from an MIT affiliate (edX) ever be worth 50% of 40 credit-bearing courses in a degree program from the “real” MIT? Doesn’t add up…

  • tungwaiyip

    People tend to consider MOOC as an alternative to 4 year college. Much has been discussed about how it could disrupt the existing college system.

    However I want to look at this from a different angle. I see it not as an alternative to 4 year college but a completely new institution that do not existed before. I remember seeing a post course survey, although I no longer have a reference, showing that the majority of the students are highly educated with a bachelor or graduate degree already. They don’t join the course for a degree because they already have one. Traditionally for them, formal college education has ended once they earned the degree. After that usually it is impractical for them to go back to college even if they want to. The financial and opportunity cost are just too high. But that does not mean they have less desire to learn. As the testimonial of from MOOC participants show, there is a great desire for them to continue learning for both professional development and personal enrichment reason. Currently other than some university extension courses, there are few resources to meet this demand. That is until MOOC has come into the scene. As we can see the response from these educated people are overwhelming.

    If the bottom tier colleges are to be disrupted then so be it. This may even do the society a service. Instead we should think more about the new possibility that it opens up, that is structured education need not to end after one graduated. Instead education will be life long process. And it can even be a more integrative learning experience. As students get more matured they have boarder perspective. They also have more time to learn about various disciplines. And they go to classes not because they have to but because they want to. All these make them rather good students. When you do this at a massive scale the result could be the creation of a new class of intellectual people.

  • Kajal Sengupta

    Online education is in its infancy. The fact that it has caught the imagination of so many people shows that there is some virtue in it. It does solve few issues facing the learners and I am sure this new mode and along with that the universities will reinvent itself and co-exist in a comfortable way.

  • ehjxgcth

    Everyone wants to treat MOOCs as if they’re something new, but they’re not. We’ve had BOOCs (pronounced “books”) for hundreds of years. People read them when they can and answer the problems when they can. Books have allowed us to timeshift college courses for a long time but people don’t do it.

    The real problem is the credential.