In which higher education eats everything (including itself).

15 07 2013

yellsub

I have another stop on the “Down With MOOCs” World Tour on Wednesday. Thanks to my friend Dean Saitta, I got invited to address the University of Denver’s Strategic Issues Panel on the Future of Higher Education. If you’re up in the capitol city of our fair state this Wednesday the 17th (two days from now), I’m speaking at 10:50AM in the Anderson Academic Commons.

What do I know about the future of higher education? After all, I’m the “Down With MOOCs” guy, not the future of higher education guy. Actually, MOOCs can tell us a lot about the future of higher education. Most notably, to elaborate on a point I made last week, why is anybody worrying themselves to death about access to higher education in the rest of the world when we can’t take care of the students we have now?:

[O]nly a bit more than half of all US students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities complete their degrees within six years, and only 29% who start two year degrees finish them within three years. America is last in graduation rate among 18 countries assessed in 2010 by the OECD. Things used to be better; in the late 1960s, nearly half of all college students got done in four years.

Of course, everyone who takes out student loans to go to college still has to pay them back whether they get a degree or not. However, the schools getting their money don’t really care as long as they have more students to replace them. MOOCs offer the tantalizing prospect of an unlimited supply of students to suck up.

Unfortunately, like that vacuum beast from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie, eventually there will be nothing to left for higher education to suck up except for itself. Indeed, as Michael Carley writes, that process may actually have started already:

The mooc is the end (?) of the process of turning universities into the educational equivalent of vanity publishers: your name on a colourful document of little substance. For now, human contact, with academics, non-academics, other students, and students of other disciplines, is keeping universities in the apostolic succession from Plato’s focus groups. The danger of the mooc is not that it will destroy higher education, but that it will reveal the destruction that is already happening, and take us to a point of no return, where universities will quite openly offer nothing but a brand to be stamped on graduates, who are paying good money for shoddy goods, neither a head start in employment, nor intellectual enrichment.

Grow your way out is not a smart strategy for survival in our troubled economy. You can have the best university in the world, but nobody will attend it if they can’t afford to go there or have few job prospects should they actually graduate.

Aside from the obvious moral problems with treating your less successful existing students like (to borrow a phrase from Bousquet) an academic waste product, this becomes much harder to do when the largest, most successful schools in the country are literally treating your already cash-strapped students as a new revenue stream. Perhaps, as more and more schools go belly up irrespective of MOOC madness, the people running the precarious ones that are left will be smart enough to treat their campuses as vulture-free zones.


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