The Most Important Challenge For Colleges Isn't Price—It's Attention

As universities look for ways to teach more students at a reasonable price, they will move online -- into the clicky, crowded, distractable world of the Web. Get ready for Infotainment U.

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This is one of my favorite anecdotes: Last year, the University of Phoenix enlisted renowned Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen to record a lecture. The university reserved a harbor-view room for Christensen and populated it with young people, so that the camera operators could record their reactions.

Before he began to speak, Christensen noticed that the audience appeared unusually engaged and attractive.

"What school do you guys go to?" he asked.

"We're not students," a young man told him. "We're models."

When Christensen told me this story, I laughed. (Hear the whole interview here.) But the University of Phoenix is serious -- and smart. Putting a Harvard professor in front of a lecture hall filled with models is an acknowledgment that, in a Web-recorded lecture, appearance counts -- even the few seconds of cutaways to reactions from gorgeous, engaged "students."

Education now competes in a world shaped by the Kardashians, "X Factor," and "Call of Duty." And in response to this assault on students' attention, Phoenix has embraced the power of editing, graphics, and cut-aways. In our media-filled Internet landscape, Phoenix understands that it's not enough to give a good lecture. You have to put on a show that wins the war of attention.

For as long as secret notes and daydreamers have existed, colleges have had to vie for students' focus. But in the next few years, they'll have to raise their game. As they try to deliver more education at the same price, schools will move into the crowded and distractable world of the Web.

WHY ARE UNIVERSITIES GOING ONLINE, ANYWAY?

Last month, Harvard announced that it will begin offering free online courses this fall in collaboration with MIT -- a move that will make this year's high school graduates the first to truly inhabit the educational landscape of the future. Indeed, Harvard and MIT's move capped a year of increasingly troublesome news for more traditional forms of higher education.

Billionaire Peter Thiel famously told 60 Minutes that college just doesn't seem worth it anymore. "We have a society where successful people are encouraged to go to college," he said. "But it's a mistake to think that that's what makes people successful."

Of course, the central issue in the "is college worth it?" debate is a number: $1,000,000,000,000.

That's how much Americans owe in student loans. More than four times what we owed in 2000. And more -- to Suze Orman's chagrin, I'm sure -- than we owe in credit card debt (a mere $800 billion).

So, how did we get here? In part, because of another number: $40,000.

That's the approximate cost of a year at private college. And hundreds of schools -- including Boston University ($56,184), Amherst College ($56,260), Emory ($54, 980), and Stanford ($54,508) -- will be sending out far heftier bills this fall.

Presented by

Kara Miller is the host of WGBH Radio's "Innovation Hub" and an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

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