By now, it's a cliché to argue that the current state of universities is unsustainable. Every now and again, there's another book on the "higher education bubble." I agree with this hypothesis, though some of the ways that people recommend we fix it are wrong. Some of these people are reformers, others defenders of the status quo, but real reform means taking elements from both camps.
A lot of people see the internet as some kind of silver bullet that will cause student tuition to fall and get rid of tenured faculty and cause the lame to leap again. Others argue that online education is one-size-fits all, and there is no way that it can ever be fluid enough to educate the entire person. Mark Edmundson makes this case most convincingly in a New York Times op-ed, arguing that you have to get to know your students before you can actually fully plan your course.
Edmundson is probably right about this, but it is also relevant to ask if the immediacy of the classroom is worth the price tag of, say, $70,000 per year on room-and-board and tuition at New York University. When you put the numbers versus the benefits in these terms, I am agnostic.
New York University has been in the press recently because it is planning on greatly expanding its facilities in a historic district and, in 2004, gave then-Executive Vice President Jack Lew a quarter million dollars more for his base salary than that of the CEO of Goldman Sachs. But this sort of problem is prolific in higher education, though it sometimes occurs on a less exaggerated scale.
The question that we should be asking is, why can't we just keep the faculty, but get rid of all the executive vice presidents and college facilities? As an undergraduate and graduate student, I have often recommended holding seminar-sized classes as a local coffee shop or pub (for one reason or another, the faculty have never followed through on these suggestions).
Maybe the faculties are right, but that does not justify the enormous costs of the brick and mortar buildings or the legions of service workers, administrators and building managers that are necessary to keep them up to code. Why have a campus at all? Why not have a decentralized university? One where you could take a class in the lunchroom of an abandoned factory, or in the spare room of a shopping mall, or in the attic of a used bookstore?
Some people are experimenting with these ideas already, though major universities will probably fight against these new institutions' accreditation. But this fight is going to become harder for the establishment to win as more students choose to forgo college for alternative learning environments.
What might the university of the future look like? Maybe something like this: Professors will form guilds or associations to create accreditation and they will be organized according to communities rather than on one specific campus. Do you want to take a class in Connecticut or Hawaii or Alaska or Beardstown, Illinois? There are plenty of professors associated with one accrediting society or another in all of those places.
We could have, in addition to the broader associations, subgroups, like the American Democratic Socialist Professors League (ADSPL) or the American Association of Christian Academics (AACA), all of which would, no doubt, have several people who could offer courses using facilities in every city and town (the local church, which is mostly empty on weekdays, might offer classroom space for the AACA members and there's always plenty of boutique coffeehouses for the ADSPL).
Maybe the internet could be useful, not for replacing faculty, but for replacing administration. Your academic history and transcripts might eventually be administered like a social media site. All of your homework could be submitted online (and could stay online with your professor's comments, grades and letters of recommendation, though only you would have login access or the ability to choose what was shared with potential employers). You could get endorsements from professors in one particular subject area and choose to build toward a degree if you wanted one, but, either way, the skills that you gained from your education could be made apparent regardless of whether or not you completed a bachelor's degree.
Businesses could take part as well. While I am still opposed to unpaid interns being used for any operations that turn a profit, businesses might allow students at these campuses universities to be trained by staff researchers in their laboratories so that they could apply the knowledge learned in the classroom. This could serve as a means for recruiting them to paid internships, which could serve the mission of the company, and, eventually, to full time employment.
The Education Industrial Complex is too entrenched for many people to embrace this any time soon. If anything, it requires employers to change their perceptions about the kind of employees that they really need. Fortunately, it doesn't require a bachelor's degree to work at McDonald's, but the fact that a lot of people believed that it did says something about degree inflation in this country.
Hopefully, students will begin to realize that the tuition which covers fees for brick and mortar, the facilities departments, the president's chauffeur and Cadillac, the sports complexes and the six figure salary of the Vice President for Policy and Planning of Communal and Urban Engagement are not worth it. Somehow, though, I get a sense that there will be a lot more students paying off that $100,000 pound of flesh before they understand that they did not have to.