For Top-Tier Universities, Changes in Higher Education Might Be Overblown

There will be a "shake-out" determining which schools can actually survive, says University of Washington President Michael K. Young. 

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Over the last few years, people who study and report on higher education have spent much time talking about the wave of revolution coming for colleges and universities. From MOOCs to student debt to reduced state funding, most people seem to agree that the structure of higher education is unsustainable.

That's why it was surprising to hear University of Washington President Michael K. Young say that he doesn't think the core structure of top-tier universities is likely to change in the next couple of decades.

"What goes on on the campus of one of the great public research universities in terms of teaching, in terms of student engagement—it's going to be enhanced, it's going to be different, it's going to be better, but it's not going away," he said in an interview with The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal at an event in Seattle last week.

The question they were discussing is whether universities will inevitably go through a period of "disaggregation," or reduced enrollment and competition from the growing number of two-year degree programs, technical training schools, and for-profit education ventures. This threat is most dangerous for institutions that don't rank as well as their peers, Young says. "Some schools that don't have quite the same value proposition, I think they're in trouble. I think we will see a shake-out in that sense."

But for public universities like the University of Washington, which has received the largest amount of federal research funding of any public university since 1974, Young thinks "old" ways of doing things still have relevance. When he was president at the University of Utah, the school was renovating its library, and Young asked why this was a good investment. "These kids can sit in their dorm room and get more information than they can from the Library of Congress—can't we just turn this into a gym?" he asked at the time.

But what he found out was that students have actually been using Utah's library more, not less, since technologies like MOOCs have become available. That's why schools like Utah and Washington have a strong "value proposition," Young says: They offer a lot of resources beyond simple access to information. Only universities that can't offer more than a simple transfer of facts might face a serious existential threat from MOOCs and other changes in higher ed.

Plus, Young says, top universities already face a lot of competition and "disruption" from within. "We're pretty disaggregated as we are. Somebody once asked me how many professors work for me, and I said if you can ever find a professor who thinks he or she works for anybody, let me know."