2014-10 From the President: Is College Doomed?

October 2014 Is College Doomed?

The September issue of The Atlantic carried an article by Graeme Wood titled “Is College Doomed?” The introductory description reads, “Traditional college—expensive, arguably inefficient, slow to change—is widely seen as ripe for dissolution.” Wood goes on to describe some of the competition to the traditional institution.

Some years ago, I served on an American Council of Education task force studying how to manage the impending entry of for-profit institutions into the higher education arena. After long discussions, we concluded that regional accreditation associations would be the gatekeepers to such entries. That was before the North Central Association accredited Phoenix University, an institution with few regular full-time faculty members, and no campus. That opened the door to dozens of other for-profit institutions with similar credentials.

But the insurgents aren’t all for-profit colleges. some of them are being birthed and nourished by traditional universities and colleges.

Best known of these is the MOOC movement. MOOC stands for Mass Open Online Course. These courses are offered free by some of America’s most prestigious universities: MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, Duke, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon.

In a website called “MOOCs: Top Open Sites for Free Education,” the claim is made: “Although there has been access to free online courses on the Internet for years, the quality and quantity has changed. Access to free courses has allowed students to obtain a level of education that many only could dream of in the past. This has changed the face of education.”

Hundreds of thousands of students have registered in these courses. For example, The Atlantic reported that, in a recent survey done at the University of Pennsylvania of these students, 1.8 million registrants took 36 MOOCs. The Harvard course, “The Ancient Greek Hero” recently enrolled over 31,000 students; and Stanford’s MOOC course on artificial intelligence enrolled more than 160,000. Huge as these numbers are, the MOOC dropout rates are high. For example, only 5 percent of the students in the Penn study completed the average MOOC course and received a certificate.

Even though the dropout rate for MOOC courses is high, some traditional institutions are beginning to adopt frOMthEprEsIDENt and adapt the courses into their curricula and are giving their credits for them. Nathan Heller, in a New Yorker article entitled “Laptop U,” reported, “Following a trial run at San Jose State University, which yielded higher-than-usual pass rates, 11 schools in the California State University system moved to incorporate MOOCs into their curricula.”

The temptation to import MOOC courses, developed by leading institutions’ teaching stars and offered free, into an engineering program at a second tier college is, at this time, economically seductive. But this might be a fatal embrace to some of those programs, as it may well lead to cutting down their own resident faculty and turning others into course assistants for the MOOC. And at what point will the MOOCs begin to cost the users?

Facing public concerns about rising tuition costs, student debts, and declining legislative support, the traditional universities are turning to adjunct instruction and the Internet to expand their audience to working adults who want the credential of a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Some of them have simply expanded their own offerings to attract the audience that MOOCs were designed to serve. For instance, Western Governors University is a consortium of public universities in those states, offering online degrees for courses provided by their members. Arizona State University recently announced the availability of more than 70 online degree programs. They have also announced a partnership with Starbucks Coffee to form the Starbucks Ccollege Achievement Plan, helping baristas and others to complete their “journey in higher education.”

The University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education has been serving this population for years. At our October luncheon, Dean Mary Nichols will describe recent initiatives that Minnesota has been taking to address these developments.

Most of us who have spent our careers here might look at these developments and dire predictions, remembering Mark Twain’s remark that “the report of my death was an exaggeration.” It was, but it was eventually true. Let’s hope that the University of Minnesota can make the adaptations needed to thrive in this changing and dynamic higher education scene.

— Hal Miller, UMRA President miller@umn.edu