An analogous situation prevails in higher education, where access to classroom seats, faculty experts, and university diplomas have been scarce for half a millennium. When massively open online courses first appeared, making free classes available to anyone with internet access, universities reflexively dismissed the threat. At the time, MOOCs were amateuristic, low-quality, and far removed from our degree-granting programs. But over the past 10 years, the technology has improved greatly. And this past semester, the coronavirus pandemic transformed distance learning from a quaint side product that few elite schools took seriously to a central part of our degree-granting programs. Arguments for the inherent superiority of the residential college experience will be less convincing now that we’ve conferred the same credentials—and charged the same tuition—for education delivered remotely.
Read: The misfortune of graduating in 2020
I need no convincing of the value of campus life and in-classroom education. I recognize that online platforms can’t perfectly replace what we deliver on campus. But they can fulfill key pieces of our core mission and reach many more students, of all ages and economic backgrounds, at a far lower cost. What online services lack in quality, they make up for in convenience—and as they get more popular, they’re only going to get better, which in turn could unbundle the prevailing model of higher education.
Indeed, that unbundling is already happening. Employers such as Google, Apple, IBM, and Ernst & Young have stopped requiring traditional university degrees, even for some of their most highly skilled positions. Inevitably, as employers embrace new skills-based certifications, many students may question the value of the traditional four-year degree. Even some of the best college instructors are taking their talents to new online platforms—and developing their own brand identities, distinct and independent from their home institution.
These shifts are all key components of a core feedback loop supporting colleges and universities. Students pay a premium to go to the best colleges so they can receive instruction from the best faculty—and job offers from the best employers. Faculty seek out campuses where they can find the best students, the greatest financial resources, and research engagement from top companies. Employers are attracted to colleges where they can recruit the best students, with the most up-to-date knowledge, delivered by the best scholars. We are now witnessing technology simultaneously disrupt each part of that loop.
This transition is likely to appear first in technical degree programs, where it is relatively easy for students to certify their skills online, there is high demand from employers, and there are plentiful courses from professors at top universities. It is also likely to impact master’s programs before bachelor’s programs, because many working professionals seeking to shift careers don’t have the time or resources for full-time, residential programs. Private universities may be affected before public institutions—which will be shielded, at least initially, by lower prices and the ability to leverage taxpayer support. But this transformation won’t stop with technical master’s degrees at private institutions. Ultimately, its influence will be felt at every level in the academy, and across nearly all degree programs.