The End of College

[Amazon Link]

Another book provided through the excellent Interlibrary Loan facilities of the University Near Here, from UMass/Amherst. Sort of ironic in this situation, since the book predicts the imminent radical restructuring, if not demise, of these traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions.

The author, Kevin Carey, doesn't seem to be a radical bomb-thrower; as near as I can tell, his politics are mildly liberal, with articles and columns appearing in The New Republic, Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The American Prospect. But his critique of America's colleges and universities would be a comfortable fit in Reason, National Review, or The Weekly Standard.

Carey's brief history of American higher-ed indicates the problem: we have agglomerated three different major purposes (classical liberal arts education, professional training, and scholarly research) into what he calls the "hybrid" university.

"Hybrid" is probably the most polite term that could be applied; a more apt metaphor for an out-of-control monster assembled out of hubris and spare parts might be "Frankenschool".

Carey deftly notes that the current higher-ed system is incoherent, expensive, inflexible, and unsustainable. It is a procrustean bed, chopping up subject matters into semesters, credit hours, four-walled classrooms, and campuses. It takes little to no account of variance in students' talents, learning styles, or interests. The visible fist of government regulation and accreditation stifles experimentation and innovation. Non-academic fripperies are constructed in an effort to attract more paying students. (Carey's example: the University of Northern Arizona, with mediocre academics, but a shiny $100 million fitness center.) Education gets a back seat; studies show that the typical student doesn't learn much.

What will save the day, in Carey's view, is (1) the Internet and (2) new insights into cognitive psychology, combining into on-line course offerings that will be low-cost, effective, and far more nimble than the existing setup. Carey calls this "the University of Everywhere". No longer will an MIT/Harvard education be restricted to the handful of souls who manage to get through the admissions filter. Instead, you can get it for low or zero cost on the Web. (As with his critique of the status quo, Carey's enthusiasm for free-market innovation fits right in with my own conservative/libertarian sympathies.)

Carey is a very good (and occasionally very funny) writer, and he certainly did his research. He took an online introductory molecular biology course from MIT (could have been free, but he paid a few hundred bucks for MIT's certification of completion). He travelled all over the country to interview representatives of traditional schools as well as the disruptive people earnestly hoping to come up with "killer apps" for the education market.

Will Carey's vision come to pass? I have to say: I hope so, but remain skeptical. Carey himself discusses how every new technological breakthrough has been hailed as a revolutionary alternative to traditional schooling—going back to radio! And computers have been marketed as education saviors for decades; hey, anyone remember Plato? So who knows?

But if you're interested in the future of higher-ed, Carey's book is an easy and fun read, full of insightful observations and interesting possibilities. A website devoted to the book (with excerpts) is here. And you'll also want to check out libertarian scholar Bryan Caplan's critique ("Wrong but beautiful") here.