Anya Kamenetz Invokes 'a Moral Imperative to Cut Costs' With Technology

Jayd Gardina, Courtesy Kimbell Sherman Ellis LLP

March 21, 2010

Anya Kamenetz, author of the forthcoming book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education

Ms. Kamenetz is a staff writer for Fast Company magazine. Her previous book, Generation Debt, explored the challenges that today's students face in paying for college. She now sees herself as an advocate for improved access to higher education.

Q. In your book, you say that soon more people will follow a "personal learning path" rather than four years at a traditional college. What do you mean by that?

A. A personal learning path is a fancy way of saying that people are going to have choices. It's already the case that the majority of U.S. college students go to more than one institution during their time getting a bachelor's degree. And a majority of four-year-college students do at least one internship. I mean seeing these things not just as random but part of a framework: "I have a goal that I need to get to, and I'm not going to expect any one institution to have all the resources I need in order to do that, and I'm not necessarily going to be following a linear path."

Q. How does technology fit in with that?

A. Technology accelerates disaggregation or unbundling of services. For the newspaper industry, it meant the stock scores went to one place and the classifieds went to Craigslist, so all of a sudden the features of the newspaper were being provided by a bunch of different places. And I see the same type of thing happening much more easily in education, through technology. So now at MIT the best physicists in the world provide free lectures, but you might still need one-on-one tutoring. You might need a company that can give you study aids on your iPhone. You might want to join a social network to get the kinds of personal career opportunities that the career center can't provide you.

Q. So what will a college look like?

A. Colleges that are proactive are going to figure out ways to partner and to offer students these services, just as they have with food courts—getting restaurants to come in and provide the food services. Colleges are also going to get better at introducing different tiers of their services. You have a lot of private colleges now that offer basically night-school versions of their courses, sometimes at a significant discount.

Q. So first it was food courts, and next it is the writing center or something like that?

A. Sure. I think career services is one that is really ripe for this disruption because there are a lot of complaints out there that they're not engaged and not making the proper connections. There's a real need for people who have specialized skills in that area.

Q. What is the biggest thing that college leaders are doing wrong?

A. The biggest mistake is not linking the use of new technology to saving costs. There's a huge cultural resistance in higher education to talking about costs and even to counting costs. I spoke to the dean of a teaching program, and she had just instituted this really cutting-edge Facebook-like platform for an online master's degree in teaching, and I asked her how the cost plays out. And she said, "We haven't done any cost comparison, and we wouldn't, and I don't think I would use the word 'efficiency,' because if you want a degree from our university, you have to pay our tuition." I think that's really shortsighted. I think in higher education there's a moral imperative to cut costs because there is such a crying need for access.

Q. What is the one take-away you want to leave people?

A. Ideally, I hope this is a message of empowerment. I really think that the simplest and fastest thing that can change is for families and students to think differently about what higher education is and what it can be. So that they don't think of it as this monolithic institution that is rejecting me or accepting me, and I should have to abide by their decisions and let them tell me who I am and how good I am, and when I get out I'm going to hope they can help me find a job.

None of those parts of the decision hold true anymore. It's really learner-centered education. It's people forging their own path with the resources available to them and not counting on these institutions to tell them who they are, and that's really what DIY U means.