in Digital Media

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?

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  1. Personally I welcome a day when advanced education is more accessible and when every high school student isn’t given the option of “college or failure”. There is tremendous value in occupational education/training, but the stigma of a vocational degree or certification keeps many who are unsuited for college from seriously considering that option. Our nation has a glut of college graduates who managed to come away from college with a drinking problem, student loan debt and a total lack of marketable skills. Meanwhile we have a growing need for skilled electricians, welders and other skilled workers.

  2. Agreed all around. College education has become a de facto screen for employment; prospective employees shell out $50K to have the resumes survive the first round of cuts for entry-level jobs. It’s a great deal for those looking to hire entry-level employees. It’s a pretty crappy deal for the students.

    Don’t get me wrong: there’s definitely value added to attending classes in person and interacting with a professor. But it’s unclear to me that the value-added is worth the cost. If all I’m really looking to do is amass credentials for an entry-level job (that is, acquire some basic critical thinking skills, a basic proficiency at communicating, and a set of letters to put after my name) then there are far more efficient ways of providing that service.

    Also, you’re exactly right that in many cases, a solid vocational training would serve students far better than a major in marketing. I can outsource marketing. It’s hard to outsource my meal at a nice restaurant.

  3. So that said, what is your opinion of online degrees? As someone hiring to fill technical/knowledge-based positions, are there any online degrees you immediately dismiss? What is your take on the stigma of having an online undergraduate or graduate degree? If you were persuiting a graduate degree today, who do you feel offers a solid program?

  4. I can’t really speak from personal experience about hiring folks with online degrees. I’ve had a hand in hiring two interns for our team, but we’ve not brought on any permanent staff. As it happens, all the applicants for our internships have been from traditional colleges.

    That said, I don’t think that I’d dismiss anyone out-of-hand for having a degree from an online program. Maybe that’s just me, though. I didn’t really learn much about my current job during any of my degree programs. I picked it all up by picking up some books on my own and (mostly) by taking a bunch of free online tutorials/training sessions.

    Mostly, what a college education imparts is the ability to learn stuff. Going to a good college signals that you (probably) know how to learn. But there are other ways to signal that same thing (e.g., writing samples, portfolios, references.) I tend to weigh those things more heavily than college, but I also have the luxury of doing pretty low-volume hiring. The more hiring I had to do, the more I’d likely be tempted to use the reputation of one’s college serve as a proxy in screening out candidates. But I do like to think that I’d still be careful enough that I could find the really good candidate regardless of her/his college background.