Fascinating article about the future of higher education.

Most people are so invested in the idea of education-by-institution that it’s hard to imagine another way. There’s also a sense that for-profit schools are a little sleazy (and some of them are). Because Web-based higher education is still relatively new, and the market lacks information that allows students to compare introductory courses at one institution to another, consumers tend to see all online courses in the same bad light. “The public isn’t good at discriminating,” says Larry Gould. “They read ‘online course’ and they think ‘low quality,’ even when it’s not true.”

But neither the regulatory nor the psychological obstacles match the evolving new reality. Consumers will become more sophisticated, not less. The accreditation wall will crumble, as most artificial barriers do. All it takes is for one generation of college students to see online courses as no more or less legitimate than any other—and a whole lot cheaper in the bargain—for the consensus of consumer taste to rapidly change. The odds of this happening quickly are greatly enhanced by the endless spiral of steep annual tuition hikes, which are forcing more students to go deep into debt to pay for college while driving low-income students out altogether. If Burck Smith doesn’t bring extremely cheap college courses to the masses, somebody else will.

Which means the day is coming—sooner than many people think—when a great deal of money is going to abruptly melt out of the higher education system, just as it has in scores of other industries that traffic in information that is now far cheaper and more easily accessible than it has ever been before. Much of that money will end up in the pockets of students in the form of lower prices, a boon and a necessity in a time when higher education is the key to prosperity. Colleges will specialize where they have comparative advantage, rather than trying to be all things to all people. A lot of silly, too-expensive things—vainglorious building projects, money-sucking sports programs, tenured professors who contribute little in the way of teaching or research—will fade from memory, and won’t be missed.

But other parts of those institutions will be threatened too—vital parts that support local communities and legitimate scholarship, that make the world a more enlightened, richer place to live. Just as the world needs the foreign bureaus that newspapers are rapidly shutting down, it needs quirky small university presses, Mughal textile historians, and people who are paid to think deep, economically unproductive thoughts. Rather than hiding within the conglomerate, each unbundled part of the university will have to find new ways to stand alone. There is an unstable, treacherous future ahead for institutions that have been comfortable for a long time. Like it or not, that’s the higher education world to come.

Read the whole thing. What are the implications for Williams?

Williams is selling a luxury product. And everyone in such a business knows that you compete on quality, not price.

Williams should increase tuition by 50%, decrease the student body to 400 per class, guarantee every student a single room and eliminate lectures. Offer the most serious and luxurious college experience and you will occupy a desirable niche in the elite education ecosystem.

UPDATE: The above was written in 2010. (Alas, our delays from submission to publication can be lengthy at EphBlog.) Have the subsequent 4 years made them seem prescient or ridiculous?

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