Commentary

The End of College? Not So Fast

March 30, 2015

In his new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, Kevin Carey lays out a dystopian future for American higher education as we know it. Colleges and universities will cease to exist, with the exception of perhaps "15 to 50" of them, and will be replaced by the "University of Everywhere," which will provide "abundant and free" educational resources that for centuries have been locked up in the monopoly enjoyed by universities. The reasons for this revolution? Carey ascribes his predictions largely to the availability of massive open online courses and the coming revolution in badging, or microcredentials.

In Carey’s future, students will no longer need to spend tens of thousands of dollars per year for four (often six) years to earn a bachelor’s degree. Any courses they could take at an accredited institution will be available free on the Internet, and third-party certification organizations will crop up to attest to the learning achieved in each of those courses. These certification badges, in Carey’s model, will verify free, or at very low cost, the equivalent education and training that students today receive in a bachelor’s-degree program. Voilà! The end of college.

While this future sounds plausible at first glance, Carey’s book requires the reader to make a leap of faith. A key assumption is that learning via a MOOC is equivalent to a traditional bachelor’s-degree program. Woven throughout the book is a description of Carey’s experience as a student in "Introduction to Biology: the Secret of Life," a MOOC offered by MITx. As he describes it, "As an undergraduate political science and graduate public policy major who studied education policy for a living, I wanted something completely outside of my expertise, so that the experience was as close to that of a newly enrolled student as possible."

And this is where his argument for the learning effectiveness of MOOCs begins to disintegrate. He claims that because he had no background in biology, his experience is equivalent to that of a young person interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree, the type of student who in Carey’s future will, instead of attending a traditional college, sit through MOOCs and accumulate badges instead of credit hours. But Carey, who is director of the education-policy program at New America and a contributing writer to The Chronicle, is not that young person; he is in his mid-40s, with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and roughly 20 years working in the education-policy arena. To think that someone almost three decades younger, with only a high-school diploma (or perhaps even less education) could motivate himself to complete a large number of MOOCs is naïve, and is not borne out by the evidence.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, examining more than a million enrollees in Coursera MOOCs, found extremely low rates of persistence and course completion. Among students who actually started taking a MOOC, completion rates were generally in the single digits. Carey points out that bachelor’s degree completion rates at many traditional institutions are nothing to crow about, and he is right. But even those rates far exceed those of MOOCs.

In his claim that MOOCs and other online-learning materials will replace colleges and universities, Carey also provides a narrow view of the goals of higher education. A bachelor’s degree is more than just a collection of individual courses; college — when done right — satisfies other developmental objectives as well, including extracurricular learning, developing interpersonal communication skills (both online and face to face), and instilling a sense of an individual’s role in a democratic society.

This is not to say that some of these nonvocationally oriented outcomes cannot be developed in ways other than at a four-year college, but Carey’s dystopian model does not provide for them. And there will always be students who will choose a traditional college experience, complete with athletics, fraternities, and — in the immortal words of Ian Dury & the Blockheads — "sex & drugs & rock & roll," as long as they have the resources to pay for it.

Carey also blames the well-documented run-up in tuition costs, and the exploding volume of student-loan debt, now totaling over $1 trillion, for the coming ruination of the higher-education industry. He describes a junior at George Washington University who has already accumulated $82,000 in student-loan debt and expects to have borrowed $110,000 by the time he graduates. Yet this is by no means a typical borrower; the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education show that fewer than one-half of 1 percent of students completing bachelor’s degrees borrow more than $100,000. The average per borrower was under $30,000.

Carey also misleads the reader when he states, "Colleges in the United States have become, by a wide margin, the most expensive in the world." While it is true that this country offers up the most expensive private colleges in the world, universities in England have caught up to and surpassed in price the vast majority of public institutions in the United States.

In the past few years, almost all universities in England have increased their tuition levels to about $14,000 at current exchange rates. Yet data from the College Board’s report "Trends in College Pricing" show that 40 percent of undergraduates in the United States attend public four-year universities, and three-quarters are enrolled in institutions with prices lower than that charged in England. An additional 40 percent attend community colleges, where the average tuition is $3,347.

It is a shame that Carey’s view of the future is so off base, because some of the book is valuable. The history of higher education he recounts, focusing on how colleges have drifted away from their original purposes, is interesting and well written, and is worthwhile reading for governing-board members who bear responsibility for keeping the institutions on track. Undoubtedly some colleges will face closure and consolidation caused in large part by this mission drift. And MOOCs may be a good option for working adults and some young people who are looking for short-term, vocationally oriented training.

But Carey’s infatuation with the technology leaders and venture capitalists who are front and center in his book, and who promise to disrupt higher education in a way that will ultimately shut it down, overshadows the good in the volume.

The biggest risk for the higher-education industry and society more broadly is not that Carey’s vision will be realized, but that it will be realized only in part. If policy makers responsible for the funding of higher-education institutions and student financial aid buy into Carey’s model, we could see a large disinvestment in higher education, leading to a system even more bifurcated than we have now. Students with means of their own will have the option of attending a four-year institution and obtaining all the benefits that come with it. Poorer students will obtain their postsecondary education from MOOCs and their credentials through badges. For some, that may be a path that works. But the vast majority of those students will be left behind in a society that will be even more unequal than it is today.

Donald E. Heller is dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University.