Last year, leading lights in for-profit and nonprofit higher education convened in Washington for a conference on private-sector innovation in the industry. The national conversation about dysfunction and disruption in higher education was just heating up, and panelists from start-ups, banking, government, and education waxed enthusiastic about the ways that a traditional college education could be torn down and rebuilt—and about how lots of money could be made along the way.
During a break, one panelist—a banker who lines up financing for education companies, and who had talked about meeting consumer demands in the market—made chitchat. The banker had a daughter who wanted a master's in education and was deciding between a traditional college and a start-up that offered a program she would attend mostly online—exactly the kind of thing everyone at the conference was touting.
For most parents, that choice might raise questions—and the banker was no exception. Unlike most parents, however, the well-connected banker could resolve those uncertainties, with a call to the CEO of the education venture: "Is this thing crap or for real?"
In higher education, that is the question of the moment—and the answer is not clear, even to those lining up to push for college reinvention. But the question few people want to grapple with is, For whom are we reinventing college?
The punditry around reinvention (including some in these pages) has trumpeted the arrival of MOOC's, badges, "UnCollege," and so on as the beginning of a historic transformation. "College Is Dead. Long Live College!," declared a headline in Time's "Reinventing College" issue, in October, which pondered whether massive open online courses would "finally pop the tuition bubble." With the advent of MOOC's, "we're witnessing the end of higher education as we know it," pronounced Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, in The Boston Globe last month.
Read beneath the headlines a bit. The pundits and disrupters, many of whom enjoyed liberal-arts educations at elite colleges, herald a revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or their children, but for others: less-wealthy, less-prepared students who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college education.
"Those who can afford a degree from an elite institution are still in an enviable position," wrote the libertarian blogger Megan McArdle in a recent Newsweek article, "Is College a Lousy Investment?" For the rest, she suggested, perhaps apprenticeships and on-the-job training might be more realistic, more affordable options. Mr. Aoun, in his Globe essay, admitted that the coming reinvention could promote a two-tiered system: "one tier consisting of a campus-based education for those who can afford it, and the other consisting of low- and no-cost MOOC's." And in an article about MOOC's, Time quotes David Stavens, a founder of the MOOC provider Udacity, as conceding that "there's a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful."
But if you can't, entrepreneurs like him are creating an industrialized version of higher education that the most fervent disruptionists predict could replace mid-sized state institutions or less-selective private colleges. "I think the top 50 schools are probably safe," Mr. Stavens said.
A 'Mass Psychosis'
Higher education does have real problems, and MOOC's, badges—certificates of accomplishment—and other innovations have real potential to tackle some of them. They could enrich teaching, add rigor, encourage interdisciplinarity, reinforce education's real-world applicability, and make learning more efficient—advances all sorely needed.
But the reinvention conversation has not produced the panacea that people seem to yearn for. "The whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis," a case of people "just throwing spaghetti against the wall" to see what sticks, says Peter J. Stokes, executive director for postsecondary innovation at Northeastern's College of Professional Studies. His job is to study the effectiveness of ideas that are emerging or already in practice.
He believes that many of the new ideas, including MOOC's, could bring improvements to higher education. But "innovation is not about gadgets," says Mr. Stokes. "It's not about eureka moments. ... It's about continuous evaluation."
The furor over the cost and effectiveness of a college education has roots in deep socioeconomic challenges that won't be solved with an online app. Over decades, state support per student at public institutions has dwindled even as enrollments have ballooned, leading to higher prices for parents and students. State funds per student dropped by 20 percent from 1987 to 2011, according to an analysis by the higher-education finance expert Jane Wellman, who directs the National Association of System Heads. States' rising costs for Medicaid, which provides health care for the growing ranks of poor people, are a large part of the reason.
Meanwhile, the gap between the country's rich and poor widened during the recession, choking off employment opportunities for many recent graduates. Education leading up to college is a mess: Public elementary and secondary systems have failed a major segment of society, and the recent focus on testing has had questionable results.
Part of the problem is that the two-tiered system that Mr. Aoun fretted about is already here—a system based in part on the education and income of parents, says Robert Archibald, an economics professor at the College of William and Mary and an author of Why Does College Cost So Much?
"At most institutions, students are in mostly large classes, listening to second-rate lecturers, with very little meaningful faculty student interaction," he says. "Students are getting a fairly distant education even in a face-to-face setting."
If the future of MOOC's as peddled by some were to take hold, it would probably exacerbate the distinction between "luxury" and "economy" college degrees, he says. Graduates leaving high school well prepared for college would get an even bigger payoff, finding a place in the top tier.
"The tougher road is going to be for the people who wake up after high school and say, I should get serious about learning," Mr. Archibald says. "It's going to be tougher for them to maneuver through the system, and it is already tough."
That's one reason economists like Robert B. Reich argue for more investment in apprentice-based educational programs, which would offer an alternative to the bachelor's degree. "Our entire economy is organized to lavish very generous rewards on students who go through that gantlet" for a four-year degree, says the former secretary of labor, now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. As a country, he says, we need to "expand our repertoire." But it's important that such a program not be conceived and offered as a second-class degree, he argues. It should be a program "that has a lot of prestige associated with it."
With few exceptions, however, the reinvention crowd is interested in solutions that will require less public and private investment, not more. Often that means cutting out the campus experience, deemed by some a "luxury" these days.
Less Help Where It's Needed
Here's the cruel part: The students from the bottom tier are often the ones who need face-to-face instruction most of all.
"The idea that they can have better education and more access at lower cost through massive online courses is just preposterous," says Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. Seventy percent of her students are eligible for Pell Grants, and 50 percent come from the broken District of Columbia school system. Her task has been trying to figure out how to serve those students at a college with the university's meager $11-million endowment.
Getting them to and through college takes advisers, counselors, and learning-disability experts—a fact Ms. McGuire has tried to convey to foundations, policy makers, and the public. But the reinvention conversation has had a "tech guy" fixation on mere content delivery, she says. "It reveals a lack of understanding of what it takes to make the student actually learn the content and do something with it."
Amid the talk of disruptive innovation, "the real disruption is the changing demographics of this country," Trinity's president says. Waves of minority students, especially Hispanics, are arriving on campus, many at those lower-tier colleges, having come from schools that didn't prepare them for college work. "The real problem here is that higher education has to repeat a whole lot of lower education," Ms. McGuire says. "That has been drag on everyone."
Much of the hype around reinvention bypasses her day-to-day challenges as a president. "All of the talk about how higher education is broken is a superficial scrim over the question, What are the problems we are trying to solve?" she says. The reinvention crowd has motivations aside from solving higher education's problems, she suspects: "Beware Chicken Little, because Chicken Little has a vested interest in this. There is an awful lot of hype about disruption and the need for reinvention that is being fomented by people who are going to make out like bandits on it."
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia and a frequent commentator on technology and education, believes that some of the new tools and innovations could indeed enhance teaching and learning—but that doing so will take serious research and money.
In any case, he says, the new kinds of distance learning cannot replace the vital role that bricks-and-mortar colleges have in many communities.
"To champion something as trivial as MOOC's in place of established higher education is to ignore the day-care centers, the hospitals, the public health clinics, the teacher-training institutes, the athletic facilities, and all of the other ways that universities enhance communities, energize cities, spread wealth, and enlighten citizens," he says. "Not only is it not about the classroom, it is certainly not just about the direct delivery of information into people's lives. If that's all universities did, then publishing and libraries would have crushed universities a long time ago."
Unfortunately, Mr. Vaidhyanathan says, the discussion of college reinvention represents a watering down of higher education's social contract—a process that has been in the works for decades. "What it is going to take to reinvigorate higher education in this country," he says, "is a strong political movement to champion research, to champion low tuition costs as a policy goal, to stand up against the banks that have made so much money lending for student loans, and to reconnect public institutions to their sense of public mission."
"That is going to be a long process," he says. "It has taken 20 years to press universities down into this cowering pose, and it is going to take 20 assertive years to get back to the point where Americans view American higher education the way the rest of the world does."