Harvard Will Be Just Fine

My colleague Dave Robson over at SpiralMath clued me in to an article by Brett Goldstein called The Unbundling of Harvard Has Begun. I had quite a few thoughts about it… okay, I have quite a few disagreements with it. But while I’ll admit that I’m about to give Goldstein a pretty hard time here, please read to the end, because I’ll close with something nice.

“There’s been a growing bubble in higher education for some time, but this may be the tipping point. The cost of tuition has been rising for years, but the value hasn’t.”

There are probably good examples to use for this, but Harvard isn’t one of them, because unlike less well-endowed institutions, it has a sliding scale. The families for whom fifty grand would be a big deal aren’t actually paying that. In fact, for middle class families, Harvard will now be effectively free because their share of tuition will be zero, and their kids won’t be burning cash in Cambridge.

“Online education is in its infancy.”

No, it’s not. Even if we don’t count things like PLATO, which debuted in 1960, universities were offering courses online by the mid-’90s. A quarter century is hardly “infancy”.

“Traditional higher education (as well as commerce and politics) is built on information scarcity. You pay to get access to information in universities that is impossible to get elsewhere.”

It’s true that much of what one would learn in college can be learned online. But the issue has never been the availability of knowledge, higher education is more than “content and conversation”. Once upon a time, public libraries were heralded as “people’s colleges” because of all the information contained within. But higher education survived the the public library, and it survived the Internet, despite periodic predictions for decades that it wouldn’t. It will survive the pandemic too.

The reason it survives is that the purpose of colleges and universities is not primarily to impart knowledge, it is to verify that knowledge through the credentials that they award. This is not something easily replicated, because the higher education system has shown a knack for absorbing potential competitors to its credentialing role. Back in the ’90s, a technical certification from Microsoft called MCSE was sought after by tech workers (including yours truly) because it essentially meant a decent paying job was guaranteed. A few other certifications were similarly important.

But rather than see that as competition, colleges and universities started accepting them as the equivalent to transfer credit, and offering credit-bearing courses that prepped students to sit the MCSE and other exams. Moreover, degrees do not expire, whereas technical certifications… well, let’s just say no one today cares that I’m certified as an expert system administrator for Windows NT 4.0.

“Also last week, the federal government made moves that confirmed growing sentiment that university degrees are becoming increasingly less important for successful employment.”

This is not because of the value of a degree (or lack thereof) this is because Trump perceives academia as an enemy of his administration. And while admitting that Trump is right about something isn’t exactly my default setting, in this case he definitely is.

“Keep in mind, this is all happening against the backdrop of continuous stories of individuals achieving incredible success despite lacking a traditional college education.”

Sure, that’s always been the case. But even now, on average, those who hold degrees make dramatically more money in their careers than those who do not. Just because a law is stochastic rather than deterministic doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

“This is the transition we’re beginning to make with online education. One-to-one translations of in person lectures to Zoom isn’t how remote learning should be done. Universities will need to reimagine education for this new medium to keep up.”

One of the reasons we make the point to refer to what’s happening as “remote learning”, is that it’s so different from what instructional designers and online educators have been doing for the last quarter century. Educational technologists will be the first to agree that what happened in Spring was mostly garbage. It takes time to build things right, so we’ll see whether having had the Summer to prepare leads to a better Fall.

“As universities continue to lose their relevance, students will seek alternatives. This spells immense opportunity for startups looking to unbundle the university experience.”

Again, higher education as an industry is much more diverse than this suggests. The stereotype may be of expensive campuses with climbing walls and lazy rivers and hordes of useless administrators driving up costs, but there’s a whole category of DEAC-accredited universities that offer only the basics, by distance learning, and at prices that often underbid even community colleges. (And Californians, did you know you can go to law school for about ten grand total? Because you can.) The scenario is not higher education vs. startups, because higher education contains startups.

So, I realize all that seems like I’m taking the pigeon approach of just flying around and crapping on everything. But I promised I’d close with something conciliatory.

Goldstein also says, “I launched Social Studies (currently as a newsletter) with the idea of unbundling Social Science education from universities and applying it to business.” One might think after that list of complaints that I wouldn’t be interested in learning more about what he plans. But the truth is that I’m actually his newest subscriber.

Why? Well, obviously I wish that people jumping into the EdTech space were better informed about its history, but I’m genuinely excited about the energy that people like Goldstein bring to education with their enthusiasm and willingness to experiment. I look forward to seeing what all these Davids build from their potshots at Goliath. I expect that higher education will absorb them, or be pushed in the right direction by them, as it has by other initiatives before. But maybe I’m wrong, and they’ll win. Either way, the increase in options for students makes for exciting times in higher education.