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College for $99 a month

Behold the future of higher education.

StraighterLine is the brainchild of a man named Burck Smith, an Internet entrepreneur bent on altering the DNA of higher education as we have known it for the better part of 500 years. Rather than students being tethered to ivy-covered quads or an anonymous commuter campus, Smith envisions a world where they can seamlessly assemble credits and degrees from multiple online providers, each specializing in certain subjects and—most importantly—fiercely competing on price. Smith himself may be the person who revolutionizes the university, or he may not be. But someone with the means and vision to fundamentally reorder the way students experience and pay for higher education is bound to emerge.

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries—automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

In combination, these two trends threaten to shake the foundation of the modern university, in much the same way that other seemingly impregnable institutions have been torn apart. In some ways, the upheaval will be a welcome one. Students will benefit enormously from radically lower prices—particularly people like Solvig who lack disposable income and need higher learning to compete in an ever-more treacherous economy. But these huge changes will also seriously threaten the ability of universities to provide all the things beyond teaching on which society depends: science, culture, the transmission of our civilization from one generation to the next.

It’s a fascinating read, part awesome and part scary. Or maybe it’s just a whole lot of hype and doesn’t really mean much.

The stories of working people putting themselves through accelerated degree programs through self-study are inspiring, and all, but there’s nothing really new here. There has never really been any question about whether hard-working and motivated students could learn at their own pace– these stories pre-date the Internet. The history of science is full of brilliant auto-didacts who learned their subject from public libraries and the like, and anybody who has spent any time in higher education has encountered somebody who was self-taught or home-schooled who blew away all their peers.

The question has always been whether self-paced online education can work on a mass scale– for people who aren’t motivated to put in 18 hours a day studying toward a specific goal. I don’t really see anything in the article that addresses that question. I think this has the potential to be a great deal for people with a strong sense of self-motivation and good work ethic, but I suspect they’ll end up making lots of money off people who start classes, and then lose interest, but never get around to officially dropping out.

Check it out and decide for yourself. Thanks to Steve Benen for the link.

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One Comment

  1. Kent says:

    College done right is about networking as much as academics.

    Meeting those professors who can make a phone call to an alum and get you an interview. Bonding with your classmates who will be part of your future network.

    I worked as a manager in a scientific agency and was involved in the hiring of a number of biologists, economists and other professionals over the years. I never had any applicants show up from online diploma mills. But I would have looked with great skepticism at any candidate who did not have a degree from an established university that I had heard of. In the scientific fields it is impossible for me to conceive of an online school that would expose students to the sort of lab work that one needs to gain experience in science. Students learn science by working with scientists on research projects.

    I don’t think universities are going anywhere. For most people, the value of a college education is the future doors it opens in terms of careers. I seriously doubt that online degrees will ever have the same prestige as brick and ivy universities in our lifetime.