Higher ed will look different as online learning advances

Colleges and universities have a big impact on the lives of every American, and on the U.S. economy … even without football.

Football, though, is the quintessential college sport. More than any other, it evokes the imagery, imagination and tradition of the ivy-covered institutions that transform our youth into adults and guide the thoughts of our nation.

Football and higher education made a serious mistake when they abandoned traditions for economic benefits of television cash. Both had more of an interest in of seasonal rhythm than they realized.

Ecclesiastes had it right when he wrote, “To every thing there is a season,” and the season for learning is autumn, when the heat of the summer is waning and the cooler air refreshes our minds and prepares them for growth. Football was first embedded in this tradition, and its growth was built on its foundation in the colleges and universities of our country where most of the games were played in the crisp air of autumn.

Economics has no season; it works year-round, twenty-four hours a day. The size of the television audience is presently the dominant force in sports because of the advertising revenue it represents. Television’s cash flow is why the bowl season now stretches out endlessly, with near-empty stadiums hosting the “Pointless Bowl,” then the “Meaningless Bowl.”

Television economics also explains why baseball, the “national pastime,” is now mostly played at night, and the Apple Cup game is now played on a Friday. It hasn’t come to the point where hedge fund managers will be singing the national anthem before our games, but, when you think about it, why not?

Lacking a season, economics cannot tap into any natural resonance in human behavior; tradition is its enemy. In football especially, then, rivalries between teams increasingly resemble industrial battles; traditional rivalries are abandoned in favor of scheduling opportunities that have all the emotional character, heart, and excitement of, say, the retail competition between Wal-Mart and Target.

Now, it seems, the institutions whose traditions gave birth to football find themselves assailed by the same forces of economics that have been transforming the sport.

Higher education set itself up for the problem by assuming that economics was its best friend forever. Colleges and universities have promoted the “Expensive … but worth it” idea that no matter what a college degree cost it was the key to wealth and the good life in America. It paid for itself.

There is a mixture of truth and fallacy in this idea, and even the true part can be difficult in real life. As many recent college graduates have found, a baccalaureate degree might be the key, but if you can’t reach the door lock the key isn’t worth much.

Beyond its market value problem in a jobs recession, a college degree no longer provides the degree of social or economic separation that it once did. It has fallen victim to access and affordability; we can’t all be above average like the kids in Lake Wobegon.

In the midst of the changes wrought by the weak economic recovery and the collapsing student loan gateway-to-wealth model, colleges and universities are facing a new challenge: online learning.

The domestic and global demand for online learning is already phenomenal, and it seems to be growing rapidly. An introductory course on circuits, developed by MIT, has attracted more than 150,000 students in its first six months. The Coursera program run by Stanford University now has an enrollment of nearly 2.5 million.

One of the attractions right now is the cost of tuition. The courses themselves are sometimes free and sometimes carry nominal fees. Obtaining university credit for passing the course, though, generally costs more.

It is a very different higher education model: knowledge is free; certification that you possess that knowledge has a dollar cost attached to it. And the market value of both the knowledge and the certification has yet to be determined.

What is absolutely clear, though, is that online learning means the end of higher education as it is currently structured. How soon that will happen and which institutions and traditions will remain isn’t known yet, but it will happen. As billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban puts it, “When I look at the university and college systems around the country, I see the newspaper industry.”

There are two things that will save some colleges and universities: tradition and demand. The social and economic separation embedded in a baccalaureate degree remains, largely undiminished, at our elite institutions and in demand for their graduates.

How quickly will our colleges and universities become memories? Slower than the cost differential would indicate and faster than we expect. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart’s “Casablanca” line, “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.”

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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