The End of the University

 Middle of March 2008

When Plato founded the Academy in 385 B.C., he had no idea that the concept of the university would permeate the civilized world. Until the nineteenth century universities were religious-based European institutions that catered only to the elite, and taught a narrow range of disciplines ill-suited to people who might have to learn a trade. By the twentieth century, the secular German model had propagated to other countries and now nearly half of the population of industrialized countries experience tertiary education. 

American universities are victims of their own success. Serious and high level career employment is almost impossible without a university degree; it’s become the high school diploma of the twenty first century. Research universities have become bloated and bureaucratic and the quaint tradition of tenure means that the professoriate is almost immune from market forces. As a result, students and their families can be gouged by tuition that’s rising at twice the rate of inflation. This is justified by the extra earning power that a college education still conveys. However, the bang for the buck declines when students find themselves in huge lecture classes that use old Germanic teaching methods, and when so few classrooms are informed by the latest research on pedagogy. 

The gravy days are nearly over. Parents and government regulators are starting to draw lines in the sand on further tuition increases. Regents and university administrators are demanding that their highly paid research faculty pay more attention to teaching, and to the undergraduates who pay most of the bills. Students are demanding that universities be responsive to the changing workplace; forty years ago a graduate would have typically a single job, today the number is six or seven. The largest high school graduating class will be on 2010. Thereafter, enrollments will decline and the landscape will transition into a buyer’s market. 

I teach at a large Land Grant university with 40,000 undergraduates and thousands of different classes. It’s primarily a residential campus, and the first year away from home, that time of roiling hormones and excess and experimentation, is still a rite of passage for many 18-year-olds. However, the percentage of adults or non-traditional learners in U.S. colleges has grown steadily, from 15% of students in 1990 to over 50% in 2004. The 18-year-old freshman fresh away from home is now a minority. 

The informal sector of higher education is the only one that will grow in the next decade. The graying of American and the spryness of all those retired people means that lifelong education will be more than a catchphrase. Over 100 million people, 50% of all adults, now enroll in a college course in any 12-month period, an increase of 35% since 1991. Another 40 million adults participate in courses occasionally for personal interest. The older students have a lot of disposable income so their preferences and their spending patterns matter. 

Technology is also transforming the landscape of the university. You might not know it to visit a campus like mine, where most large classes are still taught in the old-fashioned way, by lecturing, and where the use of computers and classroom responders and other learner-centered tools is still rare. At its worst, this is a pitiful mode of transmission of information, little better than babysitting. Even at its best, it is inefficient and poorly suited to the way students actually learn.

The biggest change wrought by technology is the erosion of the sense of place. Distance learning began with the growth of the postal service and correspondence courses in the nineteenth century. Britain’s Open University was established in 1969; with very little fanfare it has grown to 180,000 students enrolled worldwide. The rapidly growing, for-profit University of Phoenix in the U.S. has 250,000 students spread over 79 campuses. These universities cater to vocational needs and they offer classes when working people need them, or they offer online learning anytime, anyplace. 

The wired and wireless Internet, and the growth of bandwidth sufficient to deliver video, are creating a situation where the classroom experience can be simulated online. Add to that immersive technologies like Second Life and game-play learning, and the need to sit in a classroom will dissipate. Adult learners will use video on demand to view lectures, tools like Wikipedia instead of a library, and discussion boards and wikis to discuss and collaborate with their fellow students. It sounds detached and austere but it’s already the way most teenagers learn and interact. 

Does all this presage the end of the university? Not necessarily. The jeremiads have been written before and been found to be premature. The cultural heritage that posits years at university as a rite of passage and maturation will not go away overnight. The technology that facilitates distance education will have a lurching and painful learning curve. The corps of disembodied learners will grow steadily but not dramatically. And Plato got one thing exactly right when he founded the Academy in an olive grove outside Athens. He employed the Socratic dialog, the best method ever developed for challenging ideas and homing in on the truth. The virtual university of the mid-twenty-first century will discard this at its peril.


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