The sky is not falling on higher education. Doomsayers believe that purveyors of massive open online courses, or for-profit companies, or shadowy entrepreneurs will make higher education so cheap that any number of existing colleges and universities soon may find themselves out of business.
Those arguments are off track because they make two false assumptions: that participants in higher education have homogeneous goals, and that students are consumers and not producers, or constructors, of their own personalized product of higher education.
First, the doomsayers assume that every potential college student is looking for more or less the same thing in a college education. This means that if push comes to shove, the student will choose the cheapest version of higher education that provides a degree employers will accept. But when students are looked at as consumers, the marketplace of consumers of higher education is no more undifferentiated than any other marketplace.
If you want lip moisturizer, you can go online and buy it for $2 or $22. Both products moisturize lips. Some people pay more than $400,000 for a new car; others, less than $10,000. Both cars get you from one point to another. Watches range in price from a few dollars to over a million. They all tell time.
The higher-education marketplace, like the marketplaces for lip moisturizers, cars, and watches, is differentiated. Some people want the cheapest education possible that will get them the job they want. Others want much more: nice dormitories, diverse student activities, world-famous professors, top-flight institutional reputation—and are willing to pay for it. An advantage of the higher-education market is that financial aid is often available to help students reach beyond what they normally could afford.
Second, students are not merely consumers of higher education; they also actively construct their college careers. They develop a plan for their coursework, their project work, their extracurricular activities, and their social network.
Two consumers buying a particular model of car get essentially the same car (except perhaps for unfortunate production errors). But two students going to the same college may produce entirely different educations. Indeed, students may choose their college in large part on the basis of their projection as to whether they can construct the entire educational experience they wish to create. So there is great variation in students not only as consumers but also as producers of an educational product—their college careers.
This is important because those two roles interact with costs. For example, a degree from a top-rated German university costs a small fraction of what a comparable degree would cost in the United States. But typically the German institution would have no university-sponsored athletic teams or facilities, fraternities, sororities, student clubs, dormitories, meal plans, or other accouterments that many students take for granted in the United States.
If students in Germany want activities, they organize them and bear the costs themselves. More of the burden of students as producers is placed on them—for better or worse. As producers they are basically on their own, without the supports that most American colleges provide.
American universities can reduce costs by greatly lowering their overhead, as do the German universities, or by having professors do some or even all of their teaching online. What students may lose, however, is much, or even most, of the informal curriculum of college—the networking and the face-to-face personal interactions that many people feel are so important to the college experience.
So less-expensive degrees can be had. The only question is: What does one want to give up to reduce costs? This question is playing itself out on a much larger stage in the United States, as local, state, and federal levels of government struggle to balance services and costs.
The problem with the Chicken Little view of higher education is that it can create self-fulfilling prophecies. If decision makers in higher education believe the sky is falling, they may find themselves taking actions that are value-destroying rather than value-enhancing. For example, institutions may start to teach courses online not because that is the optimal way to teach them (and there may be some courses that optimally are taught online) but merely to cut costs; or valuable student activities may be discontinued in order to anticipate the falling of the sky.
Framing the debate about the costs of higher education solely in terms of what it costs students to go to college is the wrong way to go about fixing the problem. The debate instead should be framed in terms of value received. How much value do students, as producers and as consumers, receive for the dollars spent? Is education at a prestigious private college worth several times the cost of education at a not-very-prestigious public college? Let the student (and his or her parents) decide the costs and benefits, much as they do with lip balm, cars, and watches. As long as an institution appeals to some marketplace segment, provides value, and watches its finances, it will do just fine.