By Richard Vedder
Although difficult to measure, it is unlikely that higher education has had any productivity advance in the 50 years since I finished college. Economists like Princeton's William Baumol have argued that rising college costs are inevitable, given inherent limitations on reducing the cost of disseminating knowledge -only so many people can fit into a room to hear a lecture.
Yet on-line education, including massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), are changing that. Prestigious universities like Harvard, M.I.T., and Stanford are working with various providers to offer courses taught by well known and often very effective professors. Coursera, Udacity, edX and others are providing increasing numbers of courses where students can learn. They join other low-cost options such as provided by StraighterLine and the extensive, high quality free offerings of the Saylor Foundation, a pioneer in the free open source movement. Khan Academy also offers materials at all levels of learning, and some of those materials are used by college providers.
Reaching 100 Times as Many Students
This movement has the potential of being the "disruptive innovation" that Harvard's Clayton Christensen talks about, leading to "creative destruction" within higher education similar to that found in market capitalism. I think the odds are better than 50-50 that at least 500 institutions of higher education will close within the next decade as technology and entrepreneurial innovation lead to better, cheaper learning platforms, forcing out some expensive traditional schools with so-so reputations and weak outside private financial support.
The best of the new course offerings appear to be of very high quality: superb lecturers, good, rigorous reading assignments, opportunities for students to ask questions, etc. Instead of sitting before 200 students in a lecture hall, a first-rate professor can reach 100 times as many students. A student can advance at his or her own pace. Instead of learning from tens of thousands of mostly so-so professors, students can gain comprehension from hundreds of the best and/or brightest teachers, many from prestigious universities.
I have been particularly impressed by the Saylor Foundation's approach. They offer roughly courses in about 15 or so "majors," as well as some other elective courses in fields as diverse as music and physics. Economics majors, for example, complete a core of four basic and intermediate level theory courses, plus additional study in mathematics, statistics, and econometrics. They can choose from about a dozen other courses to complete a major. And Saylor is partnering with other providers - like Excelsior, StraighterLine and even the College Board's CLEP exam (an underutilized way students can earn credit).
l was impressed with materials for economics courses with which I have personal knowledge. To be sure, the courses are rather cookie-cutter in nature -- not eccentrically brilliant, but covering the fundamentals competently and well. I understand now why a number of studies have suggested on-line courses are equal to or even moderately superior to conventional approaches in terms of learning, and also cheaper.
Hands-On Experience in Science
There are four issues relating to on-line education, however: advanced learning, socialization/networking, credentialing and verification. At higher levels of subject inquiry, the numbers involved sharply decrease, reducing the potential economic advantages of on-line learning. The advantages of personal interaction between instructors and students grow. In the sciences, the need for hands-on laboratory experience intensifies. Thus a blended on-line/traditional educational program where students do perhaps a year or so of classroom courses might often be the ideal, and doable for a small fraction the cost of conventional higher education.
For many, higher education is as much a consumption good/service as it is an investment. College is where you make friends, fall in love, and party, sometimes irresponsibly. In residential settings, it is where students learn to make decisions previously made by parents. These experiences are educating in their own way, helping ease the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and networking with others sometimes helps get jobs. Also, you can't make love or party on-line.
Then there is the credentialing function. Some adult learners take MOOCs just for the desire of learning new things, expanding their horizons. Some may even take them to learn specific skills useful at home or at work. But I would guess the major motivation for college attendance is the desire to earn a degree typically signifying a level of competence, perseverance, intelligence, and discipline that nets a good job. College graduates usually make more money, although that is increasingly less so, as I have written elsewhere.
What About Certification?
There is always a question with distance learning: did the student submitting the materials really do the work? There are ways of reducing or eliminating this problem, but it must be addressed.
Colleges certify that the bundle of courses students have taken constitutes a degree. Yet accrediting agencies heretofore have been reluctant to allow colleges to grant lots of credit for courses provided by organizations like edX or Saylor that are not accredited. They are a barrier to innovation. If the cost of an education is very low, however, students need not borrow federal funds requiring attendance at an accredited school, so non-accredited "schools" can compete as long as employers recognize the outcomes as being of high quality. Entrepreneurs are already recognizing this and are trying to get into the business of bundling courses from alternative providers and certifying degrees.
I think a national exit exam provided by the College Board, ACT, anyone creditable (Underwriters Laboratories?) could facilitate this. A resume saying "I am a graduate of XYZ On-Line University and scored a 92 on the NCEE (National College Exit Examination)" might be considered better by employers than a degree from a college where students do poorly on the NCEE. And why doesn't the US Chamber of Commerce or other employer groups promote create the NCEE? Longer term, providing national data on the earnings of graduates by institution would also help employers assess the quality of degrees.
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches economics at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.