WASHINGTON – We may very well be at the beginning of a fundamental revolution that will transform American higher education. And it is called “On-line Universities”. Let me explain what this is all about. There is no doubt that over time the US created several Super Universities that are recognized nationally and internationally as centers of excellence. Their degrees are coveted by millions who aspire to have prestigious, high paying jobs.
While all this is true, it is also true that today in America a university education has become almost unaffordable –at least for millions of students who do not have rich parents. (Think $ 40,000, $ 50,000 a year or more). Indeed, in America, tuition inflation has outpaced the cost increase of almost everything else. And here we are not talking about just the few, super prestigious Ivy League institution. Tuition explosion is everywhere –good and mediocre universities.
As young Americans still want to go to university, they usually borrowed the money needed to pay for their increasingly expensive education. As a result, graduates enter the job market with a huge debt burden. It could be $ 50,000. It could be $ 100,000, or even more. These are really large debts for young people just getting started in life.
Young people cannot buy a house
And this debt burden has wider economic repercussions. For instance, even gainfully employed young people who have to pay their student loans cannot at the same time save the money necessary as down payment to buy a house. Therefore young Americans these days are renters and not home owners. Home ownership is beyond their reach.
This student loans problem has become so big that the politicians tried to find remedies. The Obama administration came up with “solutions” that in practice amount to partial debt forgiveness. The debtor is not supposed to pay more than a certain percentage of his/her income. Certain types of jobs allow the debtor to be excused, after some years have elapsed, and so on.
But all this aside, the student loans crisis continues. Of course, some young people, given the absurdly high cost of a higher education, may decide that it is not worth the trouble. While in principle it is true that college graduates on average earn more than those with just a high school diploma, if you subtract from future income the cost of paying back huge education-related debts, for some a college education may no longer be worth the trouble.
I do not want to get into why higher education costs have exploded in such a massive way. I shall mention however that the availability of student loans in a perverse way has become a disincentive to keeping college costs low. Indeed, if university administrators know that one way or the other the students will be able to pay tuition, why focus on reducing administrative and other cost that jack up the price of most degrees?
Anyway, this absurd situation will be fixed by making the traditional university obsolete. And this will be done through the packaging and on-line delivery of customized university courses, many of them prepared by top instructors.
Think about it. Why pay $ 50,000 a year for the privilege of enrolling in a computer science class delivered by a leading international authority in the field, when you can “take” exactly the same course, delivered by the same world-renowned professor, on-line, at a fraction of the cost?
The real revolution: good education to all
Beyond this, the real revolution of on-line education is that its benefits will go way beyond the Ohio kid who really wanted to go to MIT, and now will take the MIT courses at home. Indeed, potentially millions of young people around the world will have easy access to the very best minds in academia.
A great education will not be just for the elites. At least in principle, it will be available to almost anybody. For the first time in human history real knowledge will be accessible to millions, regardless of location and (at least in many cases) income.
Work in progress
Look, this is still work in progress. But on-line, high quality education is coming along, and fast. The building blocks (good teachers and the ability to customize content for on-line users) are essentially in place, while broadband internet will deliver any on-line content almost anywhere.
Leading universities, such as Stanford and MIT are aware of what is going on, and therefore they are beginning to offer oon-line courses. Others will follow, very fast.
Of course, there is still much to do. How does one make sure that all future graduates of on-line universities have indeed taken the courses and passed their tests? How do we protect future employers from inevitable attempts to create and sell fake on-line degrees? I do not know how all this will be taken care of. But I trust that experts are busy working on it.
On-line universities will prevail
Here is the bottom line. Even recognizing the challenges in creating, from scratch, an alternative to a now unaffordable (at least for many) good university degree, it is clear that high quality higher education can be successfully packaged and sold on-line to a global market, at a fraction of the cost of a classic university tuition.
Smart people all over the world, including the best minds within the prestigious universities, know all this. I bet on the success of the new, revolutionary university formula.
Imagine this: high quality education, easy access, and very low prices.