In one sense there is nothing potential about it. It is already replacing universities to some degree because there are a nontrivial number of people who have been getting degrees online and have been getting them for a while. How big of a competitive threat it is to the whole system is hard to say. I don’t think brick-and-mortar schools are going to go away. But I think for a lot of people, and especially older people, something that is more seamlessly integrated into your life and doesn’t require a 24/7 commitment has a lot to offer.
One of the rigidities in our higher-education model is the notion that you are basically going to take four years of your life and you are going to go somewhere and you are going to learn everything you need to know. And then you are going to be educated, and with your education tank full you are going to go out and live your life. And these days it doesn’t really work that way. Things change too much. Careers change a lot. There are a lot of older people who really don’t want to go back and spend four years as Joe College and Betty Coed going to classes but need to get an education. And I think the online model has really flowered most in that regard. Now whether it will also start to cut into the traditional 18 to 22 college population, it’s hard to say but if it’s going to be cost-effective, sure it will. If you’re 18 years old and you can go to college online, and also work in a job and also live at home, your net cost of going to college is vastly lower than if you leave home, go somewhere where you really can’t work much, have to pay to live in a dorm, have to buy a meal plan, and have to pay full tuition.
You also write that school choice and charters will be a part of a modern education model. What is it about school choice works for today’s students and parents?
School choice is a popular thing and I think it is consistent with the ethos of the 21st century. I mean we live in a time when there are 1,000 different kinds of shampoo: Why would we only have one school? Kids are different; there are lots of different ways to educate them. And vouchers or charter schools I think are likely to continue because what we are seeing already in a lot of big school districts and some not-so-big ones is that they are hemorrhaging students. Their parents don’t think they are doing a good enough job educating their kids, so [parents] are taking those kids out. And they are willing to send their kids to private schools, which costs a lot of money, or to homeschool them, which takes a big investment of time. They are doing that because they care a lot about their kids and they want them to get a good education. But the result of this is public schools are having to lay off teachers and close down schools and the like. With that happening, there is going to be a lot of pressure to find a way to keep these parents happy. I think the sort of savior for the public school system is charter schools and things that let people exercise a lot of educational choice while within the public school system because when people stay within the public school system they retain loyalty to it, so they are more likely to support taxes for it and they get counted as enrollees for federal funding and the like.
What will the downsides of these reforms look like?
It’s going to be like almost any other system: Life for the producers is going to become less comfortable and probably less lucrative and life for the consumers is going to become a bit easier and cheaper. Net, we will probably be better off as a society, but, as I say in my conclusion, with a quote from Arthur Allen Leff, just because it’s better for society as a whole doesn’t mean some people won’t be lashed by the flailing distribution curve, and that’s certainly right.
Why haven’t these changes happened yet? And what has to happen for them to occur?
Well, things change when there is more pressure to change than there is ability to resist the change, and I think we are approaching that point. I quote Herbert Stein, “Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.” I think we are getting pretty close to that. I mean there are really starting to be signs of change and in fact everything is happening faster than expected. I shipped off the manuscript for this book in June and I have been reading stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Insider Higher Ed and stuff and it’s like, “Oh no this is happening too soon! This shouldn’t happen until after my book comes out! What if everything I predict happens before January when the book comes out?” The thing about this is this kind of change tends to happen kind of like the quote about bankruptcy in The Great Gatsby, you know, very slowly and then all at once. I think that we're coming to the end of the “very slowly” phase and getting to the “all at once.” I think there is going to be fairly dramatic change and a lot of new models. Some of these new models won’t work that well and some of them will, and there will be a period of where are we now? And then it’ll work out.