What's College Good For?

Even as online learning matures, applications to top universities are at record highs—and it's not because of the education they offer.

Most everyone agrees that an education revolution is at hand. With the advent of the Khan Academy, MOOCs, Coursera, Udacity, edX, the Minerva Project, and an ever-growing set of tech-enabled learning tools, it seems that the university-as-campus model is on the verge of being disrupted.

And yet applications to top universities are at record highs, and Ivy League acceptance rates, as reported in March, are at record lows of 8.925%. Is this just a lagging indicator or a sign that the traditional university is here to stay?

To answer this, it’s helpful to examine the motivations of the average college applicant and his or her parents. Why do so many people want their children to go to Harvard as opposed to another private university, their state’s public university, a community college, or even an online program? Here are some of the reasons:

Scholarship. The professors at Harvard are smarter and more world-renowned, and so your child will learn from a pre-eminent scholar who is a leader in his or her field. Some of Harvard’s professors are even famous.

Credentialing. If your son graduates from Harvard, people will regard him as smart and highly qualified for the rest his life and give him access to opportunities. He’ll be able to get any job he wants.

Network. Your daughter will go to school and become friends with people who will go on to achieve great things, many of whom may even come from prominent families. Also, being around other very smart people may make her smarter.

Socialization. Your child will be trained to think of him or herself and interact with the world as a Harvard man or woman. He’ll become someone who’s comfortable and confident in a position of privilege and resources, perhaps through interaction and participation in various teams, clubs, activities and societies. And he’ll go through a series of post-adolescent/pre-adult social experiences that will prepare him for the world at large.

For most, scholarship is secondary to credentialing, network, and socialization. Very few parents keep up with who the top professors are or whose classes their kids are taking, partially because most undergraduates interact more commonly with graduate students. Parents are interested in what their children major in (say, finance vs. philosophy) but there’s a certain degree of confidence that any competent physics department will teach the laws of physics, and that those laws stay the same regardless of the professor involved. It’s less about the book learning, as long as it operates above a certain level and comes with a degree, and more about the credentialing, network, and socialization that their child will benefit from.

This speaks to the limits of online education. You can log on today to take a Stanford or MIT computer science course right now. Yet applications to Stanford and MIT are going up, not down, because people don’t go to Stanford or MIT to take the computer science course. They go to Stanford and MIT to get a degree (which demonstrates that they were smart enough to get in and persistent enough to graduate), to make friends and lifelong collaborators and companions, and to go through a battery of experiences that will make them different and presumably more successful people.

Online education and technology are doubtless going to change how we learn in the years ahead. Remote learning is inexpensive and brings down the cost of near-universal access. But the conception of education as "content" or even how we learn and absorb specific bodies of knowledge misses many of the key value drivers of educational institutions as they currently function.

So what does the future hold for education? There are likely to be at least two futures for people seeking different things. If you’re motivated and want to learn a skill or set of facts, like how to build a website or how to find the derivative of a curve or the causes of the Civil War, you can log on and learn quite freely. If you want to assume an identity, signal to the marketplace that you’re a good fit, make friends, and be in a specific formative environment, then there will be a university and campus (and educational loans) waiting for you. Schools will increasingly and explicitly compete in terms of selectivity, network, preparation for opportunities, and the social experience (including facilities) as opposed to content delivery. The schools most likely to be disrupted are the lesser ones that don’t offer high value-adds in these dimensions. There will be a continued race to the top even as access to content spreads, leading to an hourglass structure of top programs and inexpensive online options with fewer in between. Harvard will be Harvard for a long time.

This also suggests that disruption may come in a different way than people expect. Imagine if an already prestigious institution, like McKinsey or the Aspen Institute, or even a forward-thinking upstart organized a program and said, “Look, we know that book learning and skills development are important. But we think you can do that on your own with a little bit of help and guidance. We’re going to focus on three things—screening people so that all participants are of the highest quality (whatever that means), getting you to be good friends with each other, and going through common experiences that will form bonds and a shared sense of identity and purpose.” As long as they conveyed this value proposition effectively to the market, such an institution could wind up being more the Harvard of the future than any online university.

[Image: Flickr user Shaylor]

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  • Janet Ruth Heller

    Dear Andrew Yang,

    This is an interesting essay, and you have some good analysis here. I taught English literature, composition, creative writing, linguistics, and women's studies courses at 8 colleges and universities. I feel that students benefit from the classroom interaction with professors and with other students. Faculty members can convey their excitement about a subject in person better than they can convey this enthusiasm online. Also, students benefit from individual attention from faculty members in their offices. Many college classes include group work with other students and long class discussions of important issues. Students make good friends through these groups and through class discussions. These friendships are harder to achieve online.

    Janet Ruth Heller Author of the poetry books Exodus (WordTech Editions, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012) and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011), the scholarly book Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990), and the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006). Website is http://www.redroom.com/author/janet-ruth-heller