The new thing in higher education (though antithetical to the term) is the online university. In short, lectures available online – no campus required. These things are educationally worthless, but economically promising. Here is why.
Most people learn almost nothing academically in college which is transferable to post-grad life. (This is untrue of those entering technical professions, for whom the basic foundations of a technical education – engineering, medicine, chemistry, etc. – are necessary.) For most, there is no connection between art history, Elizabethan drama, French grammar, or literary criticism and earning a living. To be sure, some pursue their dreams: an art history degree is useful to a museum curator. But how many art history majors work as museum curators? Probably fewer than become life insurance salesmen.
But academic education is not the only – or even most important – aim of college. The most important work is in social learning and life skills development. College students become relatively independent from the ages of 18 to 22, a developmentally important period during which they learn to manage time, complete projects without guidance, budget money, and generally learn to show up when and where required. They must navigate a campus far from home and live with strangers. They join clubs and teams and learn administrative skills. These things cannot be duplicated online. Nor can classroom discussion (Skype and chat rooms are incapable of reproducing the fervor and pace of in-person debate). Nor can the experience of belonging to a physical collegiate community – football games, dining halls, etc. The “cloud” is no substitute for the campus.
That said, entirely too many people attend college. This is likely the result of the GI bill, which provided veterans a path to universities, places previously reserved (in the days before widespread financial aid) for the wealthy. As a result of that World War II generation’s having earned diplomas in record numbers, citizens and businesses alike responded by requiring college educations of themselves and their employees. The result was a nation of employers requiring diplomas for jobs which do not require college education. Does the art history major, expert in the Old Masters, need that degree to sell life insurance? Clearly not.
This university mania made college a requirement of any job worth having, generating more and more applicants to universities every year, and the resulting tuition explosion that is the logical result of increasing demand for a limited commodity (seats in entering freshman classes).
The online course, while a poor substitute for the real thing, will provide a cheap way in which many people can earn a college degree. It will not confer the same education or developmental opportunities, but it will confer the same piece of paper (because, unfortunately, employers will still require that paper). In this way, those who would perform functions unrelated to any college education can cheaply earn the credentials necessary to perform those functions, hopefully reducing the demand for on-campus learning and generating an equivalent reduction in tuition for campus-based educations.