Kevin Carey has a 4-year-old girl. Carey, the director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, has been thinking about the role of universities in American life for virtually his entire career. But after his daughter was born, that thinking took on a new urgency.
“All of a sudden there is a mental clock,” he told me the other day. “How am I going to pay for her college education? I wanted to write a book that asked, ‘What will college be like when my daughter is ready to go?’”
His answer is his new book, “The End of College,” which is both a stinging indictment of the university business model and a prediction about how technology is likely to change it. His vision is at once apocalyptic and idealistic. He calls it “The University of Everywhere.”
“The story of higher education’s future is a tale of ancient institutions in their last days of decadence, creating the seeds of a new world to come,” he writes. If he is right, higher education will be transformed into a different kind of learning experience that is cheaper, better, more personalized and more useful.
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Universities in their current form have been with us for so long that it is difficult to imagine them operating any other way. But Carey begins “The End of College” by making a persuasive case that the university model has long been deeply flawed. It has three different missions: “practical training, research and liberal arts education.” Over time, the mission that came to matter most within the university culture was research. Great research institutions derived the most status. And professors who did significant research – publish or perish! – were the ones who reaped the rewards of the university system.
On the other hand, actual teaching, which is what the students – and their parents – are paying for, is scarcely valued at all. There is also the absurd importance of the football team. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent to create an ever newer, ever fancier campus.
And, of course, there is the cost. Student debt now tops $1 trillion, and Carey spoke to students who were going to graduate with more than $100,000 of debt, a terrible burden at the beginning of one’s career.
Although Carey has long been aware of the flaws of the university model, it is the out-of-control cost of college that he believes will cause people to search for a different way to educate students.
Carey spends a good chunk of “The End of College” exploring the new world of online learning, for instance. To that end, he took an online course – problem sets and exams included – offered by Eric Lander, the MIT professor who was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project. It was, he concludes, a better experience than if he had sat in Lander’s classroom.
He expects that as more people take to online learning, the combination of massive amounts of data and advances in artificial intelligence will make it possible for courses to adapt to the way each student learns. He sees thousands of people around the world taking the same course and developing peer groups that become communities, like study groups at universities. That’s what I mean when I say his vision is an idealistic one.
When might all this take place? I asked him. He wasn’t ready to hazard a guess; colleges are protected by government regulation, accreditation boards, and cultural habit, among other things. But, he said, it was inevitable that we were going to see an increased educational experience at a far lower cost.
Maybe he’ll even be able to stop saving for his daughter’s college education. Maybe the rest of us will, too.
Nocera is a New York Times columnist.