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

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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.

Though many students will get some form of financial assistance, even a healthy dose of aid could leave middle-class and upper middle-class families struggling to pay. Much like health care, higher education has been unable to keep costs under control, routinely hiking tuition far above the rate of inflation. Since 1980, according to the Census, personal income has quadrupled. But the cost of private, four-year colleges has increased six-fold -- an increase that's clearly untenable.

At state institutions -- like the University of Massachusetts, where I teach -- the pop in prices particularly hurts low-income families, who view public schools as a way to give their children an inexpensive, high-quality education. Now that UMass charges over $20,000 for those who live on-campus, lots of students take out loan after loan to scrape by, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Though professors at four-year colleges don't want to think about it, an innovative solution is coming. The only real question is what College 2.0 will look like.

Thiel -- a co-founder of PayPal and an early funder of Facebook -- bestows $100,000 on each of 20 high school graduates each year, provided that they skip college and, instead, launch cutting-edge projects. It's a costly, time-intensive venture, which seems destined to stay small-scale.

THE UNIVERSITY OF INFOTAINMENT

But it brings up a useful question: What's college for?

If it's to learn -- rather than drink or meet your future bridesmaids -- the next frontier may be affordable, at-home infotainment, rather than ivy-covered walls.

Already, infotainment has made some notable forays into top-tier institutions. This year, Yale, Harvard, and Bard offered freshmen a class called "Great Big Ideas," which brings together lectures from luminaries like Steven Pinker and Larry Summers from Harvard, Michio Kaku from CUNY, and Joel Cohen from Columbia. "Great Big Ideas" is -- like Christensen's recording for the University of Phoenix -- edited and enhanced with whatever special effects the editors find desirable. When Michio Kaku talks about computers, a video of a monkey typing on a computer appears briefly; when he talks about lasers, a laser-projecting robot walks towards the audience.

I suspect Harvard and MIT already know that online education -- and infotainment, in particular -- is where we're headed. Which is why they will not only offer free courses online this fall, they'll also gather data about students -- an explicit goal of the project. Quite likely, that data will show that students like being entertained. And that -- with a few graphics and some editing -- we may be able to find a high-gloss, low-cost way of delivering education.

The seminal question is whether anything will be lost when professors start to seem as polished as Diane Sawyer and lecture halls become populated with Discovery-Channel-like graphics.

Get ready to find out.

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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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