Where Will America’s Colleges Be in 50 Years?


In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

And so begins this piece in The American Interest about the future of the college education system in the U.S., which is basically about how technology is paving the way to provide free access to online learning to anyone with an Internet connection (see this story about how Stanford is providing a bunch of courses online for free), while colleges are struggling to keep their costs in check. I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that half of the colleges in the U.S. won’t exist in 50 years, but, hey, a lot can happen in 50 years.

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9 Comments / Post A Comment

It sounds like a utopian paradise, except 1) the completion rate for these free online courses is ridiculously low (10%? 20%? I could google it, but I’m not going to) 2) after working at a community college for over five years, it’s really important to remember that not everyone has access to high speed internet, and 3) as long as society’s successes graduate from a traditional four year college, that will be seen as a desirable good.

I do agree that a lot of lower-tier institutions (both public and private) will go belly up. But I doubt it will be replaced with free education via the internet. And that worries me both personally (education is a public good) and professionally (I’m getting my PhD and want to become a professor).

highjump (#39)

@Sunny Schomaker@facebook Twelve percent of people who enroll in Coursera courses complete them. Which is the MOOC Mike identifies above but doesn’t name.

highjump (#39)

Students love online ed? Really? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/10/uc-online_n_2442833.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003

This article is nothing but click-bait. Trying reading the real trade press for higher ed (Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle) or even look up the #mla13 hashtag and you’ll see that the future of MOOCs are murky at best, students want contact with faculty, and that our country needs more accredited meaningful degrees not fewer. This is kind of my wheelhouse and every time The Billfold reports on higher ed (except for the wonderful student debt series that seems to have gone away?) I just shake my head. Higher ed is going to change profoundly in the next fifty years and there are thoughtful people writing about it every day, but of course you link to the story with the most outrageous introductory paragraph.

Mike Dang (#2)

@highjump Oh, that lede is totally click-baity and on purpose because I’m sure the writer or editor wanted to draw you into the piece, but it reads much more reasonably a few thousand words in and does concede that “Just as information is not the same as knowledge, and auto-access is not necessarily auto-didactics, so taking a bunch of random courses does not a coherent university education make. Mere exposure, too, doesn’t guarantee that knowledge has been learned.” Also, that Huffpo link says that Coursera has drawn 1.7 million users, so a 12 percent completion rate is still 200,000 students who have found the free Stanford courses valuable enough to complete, which is still something, no?

But I am, of course, not as immersed in this sort of information as you are, which makes readers like you so valuable. Please do send links to education pieces that you feel might be relevant to us. People tip us to things all the time, and I’d much rather be guided to read things by people who are well-versed in these things than discover them on my own.

highjump (#39)

@Mike Dang Thanks for the thoughtful response Mike. The ‘college isn’t worth it’ story comes up at least once a year since the first tech boom, and more frequently since the recession. There have been many rebuttals though I don’t have the time to dig through them to find the ones I remember liking.

I would urge you to think about a couple of things regarding this ‘debate’ (1)the people most frequently lauded as those that did not need college are already privileged white men and are usually college drop-outs not people who skip college entirely and (2)what of the growing number of professions that require licensure and clinical experience and (3) most institutional missions are broader than educating students

Here is a rebuttal from IHE today. It is not bad: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/01/11/case-against-college-old-and-flawed-essay

ArizonaTime (#2,694)

Harvard will never enroll 10 million students. Harvard is synonymous with exclusivity and therefore cannot be open to everyone. Even though top tier universities are offering free online classes, people completing them still cannot say they have a degree, and this distinction will continue to make a difference.

EM (#1,012)

I imagine the future will have fewer universities but I think it will be less “more online degrees instead of analog classroom time!” and more “Practical skills and trades.” I mean, a BA in English from Internet University isn’t exactly a step up from its contemporary version, even if it comes without mountains of debt.

Megano! (#124)

HA! College ain’t gonna be free unless there some kind of guillotine-driven revolution/nuclear holocaust.

aetataureate (#1,310)

I’m going to be that guy and point out that the social aspects of college are really, really important. I wish that every student could pursue a reasonably priced residential 4-year education, even. HOW CRAZY.

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