2016 AC Day 1: Why College Will End … As We Know It

By Ari Pinkus posted 02-26-2016 10:28 AM


Kevin Carey, author of The End of College, made a strong case for why college will end … as we know it right now.

He focused on three interrelated areas:

  • how America came to this pivotal moment in higher education,
  • the rise of information technology, and what it means for the future of learning, and 
  • what these two things mean for attendees preparing the next generation of students to succeed and lead in the future.

Kevin’s Background

Kevin has long been interested in matters of equality and price in education. He directs the education policy program at New America, conducting research on topics including high education reform, college graduation rates, online education, and the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Kevin began to identify with these issues more intimately when he had a child several years ago. “One of our primary obligations is to get children into a good college and help them pay for it. If we do that we’re successful, if we don’t, we’re not,” he said. “Parents are asking: ‘Am I going to be able to fulfill that goal?’ ”

For many years, higher education has been a great comfort to the middle and upper classes of society, he said. “We knew how the system worked because we went through it.”

Where America’s Higher Education System Stands Today

The ground has been shifting as the cost of college has doubled and tripled. Student loan debt in America has hit $1.3 trillion, and the default rate on student loans has never been higher even though the recession ended about seven years ago.

Politicians and college presidents often boast that America has the greatest higher education system in the world. But the picture is less clear. For universities like Stanford, which accepts 5 percent of applicants and has a $22 billion endowment and new donations rolling in, things are great. But the vast majority of students aren’t going to the elite colleges.

And the learning results in many of our colleges are not what they need to be, Kevin pointed out. Compared with the rest of the world, American college graduates are doing OK in reading but coming in below average in math.

For a long time, America led the world in college graduates. We passed the G.I. Bill after World War 2 and instituted the federal student loan system to make it easier for Americans to enroll in college. Today, many countries have passed the U.S. in getting more adults through college.  

How We Reached This Pivotal Moment in Higher Education

In the past, the way we taught in college was through recitation. Students had to memorize long passages in Greek and Latin. The idea was to train your mind the way you would train your body to run a long race.

The job of a university then was not to train people for employment. The university was designed to allow people “to apprehend the lights and shades of knowledge,” said John Henry Newman. We still hold this liberal arts ideal in high regard when we say education should not just be about teaching facts but also teaching people how to think; teaching not just empirical knowledge but moral knowledge. Education should touch the wisdom of the past and propel us forward.  

The needs changed during the Industrial Revolution. The country needed people to work on the farms and factories and expertise to grow the economy. The focus turned to practical education and Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant College Act to train people for the new industrial world. Many of our greatest colleges and universities are land-grant institutions.

In the late 19th century, many scholars thought universities should be citadels of research. This thinking came about after they spent time in Europe where they observed that professors had scholarly independence and were held in high esteem.  

In a stroke of administrative genius, some decided that research, practical professions, and a liberal arts education should all be housed in the same place. Then, law and medical schools started requiring Bachelor’s degrees for admittance and the modern undergraduate institution was born.

This move came with a compromise – and at a cost, Kevin said. If you build your higher education system on a nonprofit basis and give colleges unlimited ability to compete with one another, there’s no end to what could happen, he said. What we see in the competitive higher education dynamic is that the real currency is prestige, not money. Schools compete for the highest U.S. News rankings, the largest endowments, the best faculty, the best football team, etc.

Meanwhile, parents and families began picking up more of the bill as states’ higher education institutions received less financial support from state governments. State populations started aging, and Medicaid became expensive to support. Across the nation, we started putting more people in prison and had to pay for prison construction and staff.

College students weren’t being particularly well served in the hybrid model, which combined liberal arts, practical professions, and research. The undergraduate teaching mission got left by the wayside, Kevin said. William James wrote an essay about this titled The PhD Octopus. He noted that getting a PhD doesn’t train you to be a teacher – it’s about being a good scholar.

Then, in the 1970s, the book The Overeducated American was published, sparking a debate about whether too many people were going to college. That was proven to be a bad prediction after the blue-collar economy began to collapse later that decade. We went from blue collar to white collar jobs, and the only way you could get those jobs was to go to college.

Soon, more and more students and families were footing the bills for college.

The Role of Information Technology in the Future of Higher Education

For the past 100 years, Kevin said that people like him have been saying that the latest technology is going to change college – and it hasn’t happened.

Thomas Edison thought that with the invention of film, people would just watch movies and wouldn’t go to school anymore. Later, people believed that radio and cable TV would change higher education. But these tech advancements cannot replicate a community of learners, Kevin noted.

For a long time, all information technology could do was move information from one place to the other. The postal service, in fact, was the first real game-changer in education, Kevin said, noting that The Boston Herald advertised a correspondence course in shorthand during the revolutionary period.

Today, we have an infinite capacity to move information around – and we can process it. As a result, the focus is on personalization. You as educators know this well since that’s what you do every day. Now, it’s possible to achieve “personalization on a mass scale. We can create educational experiences that overlap with what colleges and universities are actually providing,” he said.

Kevin himself went back to college by taking a freshman genetics class at MIT, which was taught by the head of the human genome project, Eric Lander. (Kevin describes this in his book.) When solving complex homework problems, he was buoyed by the fact that he wasn’t really alone. Thousands of students were taking the class at the same time and an interactive textbook was set up to help. The virtual community of learners could help him when he was stuck on a problem. Kevin said, “I passed; I didn’t get an A.”

The courses are provided at zero marginal cost, and hundreds of classes like Kevin’s are available through the edX platform. “It is not science fiction that we can replicate parts of the higher ed experience; we can say with confidence that these courses are going to get better,” Kevin said. Companies are spending millions on new approaches in higher education. Artificial intelligence will take things further by changing the learning environment based on how you perform.

The End of College as We Know It Today

“I don’t mean that we’re not going to be going to college,” Kevin clarified. There’s lots more to education than watching lectures and doing problem sets, he added. So much learning happens outside the classroom – with informal relationships, coming-of-age experiences, and heady debates late at night. All of that doesn’t need to cost $60,000 a year.

By driving down marginal costs of courses, it’s now possible to build higher education institutions at much a lower cost and personalize education at the same time. An example is the Minerva Project, founded by a University of Pennsylvania graduate. Tuition is $25,000 a year and the model is expandable. Compare that with Stanford, which currently enrolls 7,000 students and aims for 9,000.

What All of This Means for You in the Room

First, it’s going to be really important for students, including my daughter, to learn in a variety of different settings, Kevin said. The teachers and students will learn with those right near us and with those around the world. We’ll go beyond check boxes of semesters and credit hours.

It’s crucial to keep in mind the big picture. Millions will be moving into the middle class between now and 2030, according to the UN. What do people want most once they escape poverty? Education. “It’s the path to opportunity and will be in the future,” Kevin said.

Nonetheless, education will probably look different. People won’t build the infrastructure of current American universities. The competition for spots in elite universities will increase. New choices will be available, he said, noting the birth of the uncollege experience. Here, students learn for a year, like a gap-year program.

While we mix and match the modes of education, the interpersonal, communal, and value-based aspects of learning will remain constant, Kevin said. Promise and opportunity lie ahead, but fulfilling both will be more complicated than ever before.  

“I posit that we are raising the first generation of students that will be fundamentally different than ours. It’s going to take more from all of us to guide students there,” Kevin said.