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July 06, 2012 4:31 PM Reasonable Innovation

By Daniel Luzer

Oh my god, stop with this technology fetishizing. Online college! Disruptive technologies! Learn on your own time! Members of the higher education community seem to be, as a rule, opposed to innovation for innovation’s sake. The group feels no need follow trends and lead on the latest opportunities for change.

This perception of higher education as opposed to innovation leads some to conclude that Americans must do something to spur their colleges to make more changes. Is this really accurate?

Innovate or die, say gadget enthusiasts. Or, as “disruptive technologies” pioneer Clay Christensen puts it: “The business model that has characterized American higher education is at—or even past—its breaking point,” they wrote. “Many institutions are increasingly beset by financial difficulties, and the meltdown since 2008 is but a shadow of what is to come.” Online courses will allow people to “customize” their educations and save money.

Well maybe. As Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic explains, however, just praising the idea of innovation doesn’t make online college a real competitor. It’s all about price. As he writes:

New innovations don’t disrupt old industries by merely competing with them. They do it by cutting into their source of revenue. The music industry ignored the Internet, tried to sue it out of existence, and then let Apple effectively monopolize digital music sales, which gave Steve Jobs the power to set prices at 99 cents a song. Journalism saw its ad dollars whittled away by the profusion of online media outlets and Craigslist.

Future predictors, and journalists, might want “innovation” but real people just want cheap college. And that really isn’t happening. Weissmann:

The simple truth is that nobody has figured out how to build a cheap, high-quality online university. Not even close. So far, the biggest investments in Internet education have come from the for-profit sector, and their results have been, to put it lightly, lacking. For-profit graduates have worse job prospects and earn less than their peers who attend nonprofit schools. A new study released this week suggests that many for-profit diplomas are literally worthless in the marketplace. This even holds true when you control for student characteristics like wealth. And so perhaps not surprisingly, their alums are responsible a disproportionate fraction of student loan defaults.

That’s because, as Weissmann figures, “the median net price of attending a for-profit bachelor’s degree program is almost $21,000 year, compared to about $10,000 at public institutions.”

Thanks at least in part to massive advertising, these schools are certainly growing. Enrollment in for-profit education grew by 235 percent between 2000 to 2010, but there’s no evidence that they’re actually cutting into the market that real colleges enjoy.

That’s because you can call experimental online class the future of college all you want, but delivering the classes still only represent one part of what colleges do. There’s a whole lot more people get out of going to college, whether or not they live on campus. The mere existence of a community of learners matters a lot to how people learn, even if it’s hard to quantify.

No doubt technology matters, much as it has always mattered on college campuses. And colleges will continue to experiment with online education, particularly if they can find a ways to actually make it effective and cheap. But a revolution? Well, only if you consider PowerPoint or email a “revolution” in how education operates. For people who attend real college, these basic elements of education will continue pretty much as they always have.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer