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For all the Sturm und Drang, the result was wide-ranging experimentation with online course delivery at both traditional institutions and ed-tech start-ups. Mid-2016 found ed-tech insiders like Phil Hill asserting that “these days, no one considers MOOCs to be the future of education or a threat to the modern university.” Yet it was also clear that online approaches were changing instruction on traditional campuses as well as in nonresidential and nondegree programs, and that they would continue to do so.
An academic suspicion of online transformation persists, but the landscape has changed. While the former allergy to all kinds of ed tech occasionally bubbles back up to the surface, read deeper and you’ll find nuanced insight into what will and won’t change. Online and hybrid approaches are now part of the mix. If your campus did not have an office to support online instruction before the pandemic, it does now. Per a 2021 EdSurge column, the age of the modern MOOC began with 300,000 learners taking free Stanford classes and grew, over a decade, to 220 million learners. A 2022 McKinsey report found consolidation in the online degree market, with large providers like Southern New Hampshire University, Liberty University, Western Governors University, and Grand Canyon University seeing major gains, while enrollments at other institutions modestly declined. Online higher ed is a growing market, but a mature one.
The latest shot in the online-learning debate comes from Michael D. Smith, a Carnegie Mellon professor of information technology and marketing. In a recent essay in these pages and in his new book, The Abundant University: Remaking Higher Education for a Digital World (MIT Press), Smith appeals to the conviction that higher ed should help students surmount inherited inequalities. “I know, I know, you’ve heard it all before,” he concedes. And indeed, his argument is familiar: Online course delivery will level the playing field by making postsecondary education more accessible and better tailored to individual needs.
The Abundant University has two parts. The first contains the bad news: American higher ed is “financially and morally unsustainable,” created with gatekeeping functions in mind, and reliant on an obsolete “factory” model adopted in the early 20th century. The book’s second half offers a cheery solution: Online instruction will sweep aside this broken system and replace it with abundant opportunities for the masses. “Exclusive institutions of higher learning will continue to do what they’ve always done — serve an elite portion of the population very well,” Smith concedes, undercutting from the outset his claim that broader, better online offerings will fix such inequities.
Armed with research by Raj Chetty, Smith begins by painting an infuriating picture of access to elite institutions as an entitlement of the wealthy: “Children born into the upper 1 percent of the income distribution are now 77 times more likely to attend a highly selective college than children born into the bottom 20 percent.” And the most selective colleges provide the surest pathway to becoming members of the 1 percent themselves. For the favored few, elite education offers rich rewards.
As Smith notes, this pattern betrays the vision of the pioneering education champion Horace Mann and defies the spirit of Harry S. Truman’s vaunted commission on higher education. Americans expect college to empower merit, not reward riches. In denouncing a system that seems hardwired to do the opposite, The Abundant University follows in the wake of books like Lani Guinier’s The Tyranny of Meritocracy (2015) and Anthony P. Carnevale, Peter Schmidt, and Jeff Strohl’s The Merit Myth (2020). Those books tend to propose reforms. Carnevale et al., for example, offer a seven-point plan, including ending legacy admissions and treating “high school, college, and careers as one system.” In contrast, Smith puts his faith in market forces and the inevitability of technological disruption.
Smith is aware that the digital-revolution hype came and went a decade ago, yet he is undeterred. In his Chronicle essay, he anticipates a counterargument: “Experts said disruption would happen, it hasn’t, and therefore it never will.” To which he replies that digital disrupters weren’t wrong — they were just too early, and now we have finally reached the tipping point. The pressure of technology is great, Smith contends, and the current system is no longer sustainable. Its foundational scarcities “of access (class size, selectivity), of instruction (faculty experts, educational support), and of credentials (university degrees, university reputations)” show strain.
There is certainly evidence for that, from disgust with Ivy League entitlement to companies dropping the baccalaureate as a job requirement. To turn those factors into indicators of a bankrupt system on the brink of collapse, however, Smith leans on a selective and suspect account of higher ed’s past and present.
Yet having presented cost as a major barrier to access, Smith has little to say on a host of related issues. What about the sufficiency of state and federal funding, the balance of investment in research and instruction, the return on investment in specific credentials, the appropriateness of C-suite presidential salaries and administrative staffing levels, and the justice of tax exemptions for our best-endowed institutions? Those issues are complicated and cut across our diverse system of higher ed in challenging ways, often pitting institutions against one another. Untangling them would require Smith to venture beyond elite private colleges and consider not-so-scarce, not-so-spectacularly expensive options. It’s easy to rail against Harvard. Has UMass-Boston, with its 81-percent acceptance rate and roughly $17,000 average net price, also failed students? What about Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College, which is free to Massachusetts residents age 25 and up?
In thinking through higher ed’s costs and benefits, Smith might have turned to big-picture discussions such as the running argument between Christopher Newfield (who advocates public reinvestment) and Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars (who concede privatization and promote innovation to reinvigorate higher ed’s public mission). Instead, Smith recalls the mid-1960s work of the economists William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen, the latter of whom rose through the ranks to become Princeton’s president. “Baumol’s cost disease” suggests that cost increases in one sector can stem from its low productivity relative to others. “Because professors aren’t any more productive today than they used to be,” Smith asserts, “their relative cost has risen compared to other sectors, where productivity has gone up and prices have gone down.” The key is flat student-teacher ratios: Economies of scale have not been reached, the reasoning goes, yet professors’ wages have risen roughly in tandem with the furiously productive manufacturing and technology sectors. The cost of teaching that same roomful of students has thus increased, which contributes to high tuition.
The idea merits debate — and has found it in economics journals, and higher-ed punditry — but it hardly suffices to explain all of higher-ed finance. One would be hard-pressed to argue that research productivity has not improved over the past 100 years, for example; or to paint the rapid late-20th-century expansion of student services as cost-neutral. And what about the trade-offs involved in efforts to contain costs by leaning on adjunct instructors? Through Smith’s lens, via Baumol’s cost disease, it all boils down to instructional “scarcity” inflating cost per student. Try explaining that to an underemployed adjunct.
Smith’s version of the history of the academy similarly oversimplifies. He recycles the notion — something of an article of faith among devotees of digital “revolution” — that higher education has operated according to a century-old “factory assembly line” model. That leads him to emphasize the mass-industrial features of higher education while playing down the unruly realities they attempt to domesticate. Yes, grades and the Carnegie unit imposed standard measures of achievement, time, and effort that have made it possible to treat academic outputs as if they were interchangeable. But in a very real sense, those outputs are heterogeneous, which is why our institutions are reluctant to equate them.
It was student choice — not industrial regimentation — that guided the early days of American higher ed. Students then (and today) select programs of study that they hope will lead to satisfying employment. They’re given plenty of advice but no guarantees. And while general-ed curricula have aspired to provide a common core, colleges and universities are notoriously unable to agree with one another on precisely what those requirements should be.
As anyone who has attempted to transfer credits from one institution to another knows, our system is remarkable not for assembly-line efficiency but for its loose assemblage of requirements that look standard but prove anything but. In 2020 the decadal revision of the federal Classification of Instructional Programs added more than 300 new programs of study to the thousands already on offer. Our system has always been byzantine in its complexity and abundant in its offerings to students.
Smith also overlooks the academy’s long history of appropriating new technologies. In Media U (2018), John Marx and I discussed examples ranging from 19th-century correspondence courses to the Ford Foundation-fueled telecourse partnership between WGBH and Boston-area colleges led by Harvard. Although they have rarely been early adopters, American colleges have experimented with educational radio, film, television, computers, and, yes, the internet — and figured out how to embrace and sustain many of those experiments.
Visions of academic disruption underestimate the value of campus life. As the higher-ed historian John R. Thelin has shown, athletics, clubs, parties, and all the rest of campus culture have long rivaled the promise of social mobility in drawing young people to attend college in the first place. Smith allows that small seminars are important parts of what makes elite colleges elite, but he discounts extracurricular social networking. Few events define the college experience more clearly than football games. The Oklahoma-Texas “Red River Rivalry,” for instance, recently drew almost eight million TV viewers, many of whom feel generational allegiance to their alma mater’s team (and thus to their institution). Social life outside the classroom is a defining aspect of the college experience; to neglect it is to fail to understand the core business of the residential college, which has always been as much about cultivating adults as it has been about training workers.
For Smith the successes of Uber, Netflix, and Amazon predict the disruption of higher education (exempting the top end of the market) because those services show how networked computing can make distribution both drastically more efficient and radically more individual. He is correct that they shift expectations on content delivery. Students will expect course components that look and feel like lectures to be available anywhere, anytime. As those of us who have taught in that modality know, asynchronous delivery accommodates hangovers as well as challenging student schedules.
But the traditional college experience can stretch to accommodate those changes. For online delivery to truly “remake” higher ed, we would need to give up campus scouting trips, move-in day, parents’ weekend, homecoming, and all the rites of passage and rituals of belonging that shape campus life. I suspect that such a turn of events would not be experienced as abundance.