Why Higher Education Will Soon Be Extinct


The doctor enters the room. Her face is composed with an expression so neutral that she could be the next big money poker champion. Softly, with infinite compassion, she breaks the news. This illness is terminal she explains. Death won’t come overnight, but over time the symptoms will become more pronounced. It’s time to begin making final preparations.

While the above is fictionalized, the patient is higher education in America, and the diagnosis is real. Higher education in the traditional sense is going to die. It won’t be quick and clean like a humane execution. Instead it will be infinitely slow, a painful death by inches.

College was once the realm of the upper class. It was an expensive proposition to be educated in one of a handful of elite universities. Many colleges were single sex, or military modeled. Each was stacked in a social hierarchy. Those with a degree were assumed to be the elite of the nation. They were our doctors, lawyers, politicians, or other leading figures of the times. Higher education also served as a way to keep them out of the draft. But, what kept universities exclusive were high standards and no guaranteed student loans.

College is now seen by society, with few exceptions, as a “must do” in one's life. Until the late 1980’s you could still get a decent job and work your way up the ladder without a degree. From then until now the societal perception has shifted. Rather than demanding a high school diploma, employers now look at a bachelors degree as proof that you are able to start, work through, and complete something. It has become the current standard of proof that a person is basically literate.

Thanks to the federal government, there is a guaranteed revenue stream to the detriment of students and universities alike. This guaranteed revenue ensures that the university system is focused on making money. Some critics go so far as to claim that the lure of the dollar has led to a decline in admissions standards. And, thanks to easy money for university, it also guarantees that the student will start life after graduation with the kind of debt that used to be reserved for purchasing a home.

The symptoms of this illness demonstrate that current and future students want more varied options. Today, non-traditional education (NTE) is cutting ever deeper into the niche of the physical university.

As one article states, "Online education is now an integral part of the higher education landscape. In fact, the growth rate for online student enrollments now far exceeds the growth rate of the overall higher education student population."

These strides are the proverbial comet that will destroy the dinosaur model of higher education unless adaptive changes are made.

The most prevalent NTE option today is distance learning. Within that realm you have online universities, traditional universities with an online presence, and an increasing number of totally free or low cost individual course offerings. There are also opportunities for veterans to gain college credits by challenging the course (aka testing out) directly.

A sub-facet of NTE is the relatively recent introduction of low cost and no cost textbooks. Due to simple supply and demand, college texts are hugely expensive in many cases. Technology is changing the way the textbook is accessed and used. The college bookstore is at immediate risk by initiatives such as offered by boundless.com and Apple.

All isn’t lost. Community colleges and technical schools both subsidized and for-profit are growing as well. As if to prove society wrong, there are still good jobs that don’t require a degree at all, excepting in-house job specific training.

As the availability of NTE and textbook digitization grows, there could be a Darwinian effect on stagnant traditional higher education. One possible outcome would be that the local community college becomes more specialized in producing the type-specific employee needed by local business. The current thinking by society that a college education is an absolute must might bend a bit. We could see a resurgence of the skilled worker who is great at drafting, but never learned to quote Chaucer. Darwin’s effect could also produce a more disciplined, less animal house, student as they balance the real world with online study.

It’s almost too late for my generation to benefit from the coming changes in education. Millennials get to choose their route if they aren’t already over committed. The post-millennial kids will literally have all the options in the world, without the millstone of crushing debt as the dust settles.

Bring on the comet.