Newspapers and Universities

Are universities headed down the same path as newspapers? That’s the prediction Matt Yglesias offered a couple of days ago on his blog. Here’s Matt:

I was reading John Gravois on “The College For-Profits Should Fear” in the Washington Monthly and Paul Campos’ continuing jeremiads about legal education (and this) and I more and more have the feeling that American universities are headed for a newspaper-style, technologically-induced giant collapse at some point in the not-to-distant future.

Matt goes on to outline some similarities. News reporting can be done more efficiently via the Internet. Similarly, so can finding lots of facts about the world. The internet allows anyone with sufficient interest and talent to play the role of journalist. Ditto for teaching. The internet reduces the marginal cost of bringing news to an additional eyeball to zero. Ditto for a video lecture. And so on.

The comment section is filled with protestations of the “But a university education isn’t about communicating facts; it’s about teaching students how to think effectively. You can’t get that from reading Wikipedia!” sort. And that’s all true. But is that really so different from the “Newspapers provide objective and impartial filtering of facts. You can’t get that from bloggers” sort of claim that old media types make about the new media world that is fast replacing them? I’m not so sure.

Here’s my $0.02 on the matter, based solely on my own (admittedly brief and increasingly distant) stint as an academic.

Teaching is a skill. But by-and-large, it’s not a skill that graduate programs spend much time attempting to impart to graduate students. And at top universities, teaching is not a skill that gets much in the way of recognition. An increasingly crowded job market means that the only way to land a job (never mind getting tenure) is to publish, publish, publish. Even at my decidedly off-brand university, I maintained an article per semester, completed manuscript before tenure review pace.

I was lucky, though. My university still valued teaching; the individual recognized as the university’s outstanding teacher each year was the opening convocation speaker each fall. Rumor has it, though, that at some Name Brand Universities, getting a reputation as a great teacher can actually hinder one’s quest for tenure. Listening to my friends describe the professors at their large undergraduate universities leads me to think that there’s at least some truth to the rumor. (My own undergraduate experience was decidedly different, but then my largest intro class had only about 35 students in it.)

So where am I going with all of this?

The fact is that there are some really great teachers out there. And every once in a while, there is a really great teacher who is also one of the top researchers in her/his field. Once upon a time, classes with great teacher/researchers were limited to a relatively small group of students. But now there is really no reason why that needs to be true. Lectures can stream to millions of students simultaneously. Archives of those lectures can reach millions more. Students can write essays, post those essays on their blogs, and have their arguments evaluated by an army of motivated volunteers (“motivated volunteer” being more-or-less a synonym for “graduate student” anyway.)

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the cost curve of a university education is unsustainable. And unsustainable trends are, well, unsustainable. At some point, prices for college education are going to crash, and when they do, a lot of local colleges and universities are going to find themselves going the way of local newspapers. Those that survive are going to be in one of two classes: Brand Name Universities that subsidize the traditional college experience for a select few by offering an online product to the masses, and Small Local Universities that eliminates everything that is not teaching classes.

Any of that sound familiar?