Bryan Caplan  

Kevin Carey's The End of College: Wrong But Beautiful

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Finished Kevin Carey's The End of College.  My verdict: Wrong but beautiful.  Wrong, because brick-and-mortar college isn't "ending" in our lifetimes.  Beautiful, because Carey makes us stop taking online education for granted, and feel the awe this historic achievement deserves.

I've already explained why Carey's wrong about the prognosis for higher education.  I'll bet on it.  Online education primarily competes with blogs, not colleges.  I was pleased, however, that Carey shines a spotlight on the subsidies the status quo enjoys:
When it comes to teaching, colleges and universities do not want to be more productive, and will do whatever they can to avoid such a fate.

The question is why, unlike newspapers, travel agencies, record labels, and countless other industries, they were able to get away with it.  The answer lies with public subsidies and regulations.  The higher-education industry receives hundreds of billions of dollars every year in the form of direct appropriations, tax preferences (Harvard pays no taxes on its $33 billion endowment), and subsidies for their customers in the form of government scholarships and guaranteed student loans.  The only way to get that money is to be an accredited college.  And the accreditation system is controlled by the existing colleges themselves, who set the standards for which organizations are eligible for public funds.  Those standards typically include things like hiring faculty who have degrees from an existing college and constructing a library full of books.  It's like a world where Craigslist needs the local newspaper's permission to give online classified ads away for free, or Honda has to build cars exactly like GM.
I don't think subsidies are the sole cause of lock-in; I also blame conformity signaling.  But I'm delighted that Carey is calling shenanigans on taxpayer support for the status quo.  (If he expands his critique to government support for K-12 education, I'll be ecstatic).

What's so beautiful about Carey's vision?  Because he loves education the way it should be loved - and realizes that online education is far more lovable than conventional education.
But liberal education?  If you take its meaning at all seriously, liberal education is the work of a lifetime.


The current higher-education business model consists of charging students and their parents a great deal of money for a short amount of time and then maintaining an ongoing relationship based on youthful nostalgia, tribal loyalty, professional sports entertainment, and occasional begging for donations...

To prosper, colleges need to become more like cathedrals.  They need to build beautiful places, real and virtual, that learners return to throughout their lives.  They need to create authentic human communities and form relationships with people based on the never-ending project of learning... The idea of "applying to" and "graduating from" colleges won't make as much sense in the future.  People will join colleges and other learning organizations for as long or as little time as they need.

Large numbers of learners make this possible.  When you talk to professors teaching MOOCs, none of them say they're doing it to make a lot of money or advance their careers.  Instead, they're thrilled by the prospect of reaching tens of thousands of people all over the world who want to learn, of seeing how their ideas resonate in different cultural contexts, of experimenting in ways that were never possible before the advent of technology. 
Amen!  Sadly, though, only a handful of nerds sincerely seek "liberal education."  5% of college students, tops - even at the best schools in the world.  The rest is Social Desirability Bias and careerism.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Brian Albrecht writes:

Sadly, even among academics, I get confused looks when I say I'm taking a MOOC outside of my field. I don't understand why more people don't take the liberal education idea seriously in their own lives.

Steve writes:

I just read the book, and recommend it, although I agree that Carey's predictions are too optimistic. His description of the university's historical development will be helpful to people who haven't spent their whole lives in academia.

And he's definitely correct about the quality of high-end MOOCs. I've taken a few while also taking brick and mortar classes, and like Carey, I've found that the rewind and pause buttons are easy to get use to.

Jeff writes:

What really needs to happen for on-line only education to become a realistic alternative to college is for a major business brand to back it. Google already has said they don't necessarily need someone with 4-year degree. If Google developed an online training system which people the world over could sign up for, and then used that as a screening method, well you'd have Google U, and then pretty soon Apple U, MSFT U, etc. If I'm Stanford, this is what I'd be working on right now.

All that said, undergrad is far more untouchable than grad school, simply because youngsters want the "college experience."

john hare writes:

All that said, undergrad is far more untouchable than grad school, simply because youngsters want the "college experience."

If they are paying for it with their own sweat, fine. If not, the people paying the bills will eventually have something to say in the matter.

Jim Dow writes:

The problem with online education is that colleges are complicated bundles of services, with different colleges offering different bundles, and mostly the MOOCs don’t know which bundle they want to provide.

Right now there are lots of fully-online universities offering degrees and it’s important to understand why they occupy the market space they do. Generally they are low on content, low on a signal of quality with a focus on providing a credential for jobs that require credentials but not a signal of quality. MOOCs are traditionally developed by universities with a reputation for high content, a signal of high quality and lots of student support. There are a variety of reasons for why these universities are the ones developing MOOCs, but one reason is that these are professors who are doing this are doing it out of boredom or love, as Bryan and Kevin Carey point out.

The problem is, I don’t rely on my grocery store because of their love of selling me groceries. The institutions that are doing this for money are the ones who show what it will be like in the future. I would look to Western Governors University for a model of what online education will be like much more than the MOOCs.

AS writes:
If they are paying for it with their own sweat, fine. If not, the people paying the bills will eventually have something to say in the matter.

I would be that if parents could pay a fraction of the cost to endow their children with the same human capital and stream of lifetime earnings, at the loss of "the college experience", a landslide majority would do so. Only the wealthiest families would send their children to college, as it was a century ago. The costs simply don't justify the marginal benefits otherwise.

John hare writes:

An interesting development would be some independent entity that started certifying knowledge levels. Underwriters laboratory for knowledge if you will. If enough credibility could be built up, then life experience and independent learning could supplement MOOCs as well as brick and mortar for employment purposes.

Jim Dow writes:

@John Hare

You are seeing that in the growth of post-graduate exams, e.g. CPA, CFP, CFA. But part of the problem is that you're trying to signal a number of things in addition to knowledge levels: IQ, conscientiousness, "grit" and the willingness to do what an organization wants you to do. Universities bundle those all together and the level of the university is correlated with the level of those characteristics (perhaps excluding grit).

Universities are about sorting 21-year-olds and there's not a lot of life history to go on.

John hare writes:

@Jim Dow
I see your points. So, some form of comprehensive evaluation by a respected source. Interesting problem

We need high quality online degree programs from best universities.

That can be done only by best
Brick and mortar universities?

So 200 or so best universities remain alive with many high quality oqnlqine degree programs too .
You accep or not they are more or less first 200 universltles at US news list .

You cannot stop technology .

Drtaxsacto writes:

Bryan - Your fundamental conclusions are correct. I was surprised that Carey - even with a couple of years data on IPOs in this space was a bit less optimistic about the "University of Everywhere" But I think it is one of the best books on the future of higher education I've read in the last couple of years.

College does a couple of things for young people - it provides skills and credentials but it also builds relationships. The online world can do some of those things in the first two categories pretty well. The bricks and mortar - in the best places - still does the third better; and that will not diminish.

When Steven Sample was president of USC, he described the Trojan experience as "life long and worldwide" - the innovators should be able to take that metaphor and run with it. The plodders will disappear.

One final comment - his link to the Eliot and Kerr speeches on the future of higher education was worth the book. I went back and got both and for their times they are very interesting. (About 100 years apart).

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