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.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Site preparation for housing development was underway Tuesday, June 8, at the property known as Frognal Estates near Edmonds. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald) 20210608
Site prep underway at contested development near Mukilteo

The site near Picnic Point recently sold for $24 million after the previous developer filed for bankruptcy.

A portion of the site of the proposed Lake Stevens Costco at the intersection of Highway 9 (right) and South Lake Stevens Road (below, out of view). (Chuck Taylor / Herald file)
Shovel alert: Groundbreaking on Lake Stevens Costco is near

A land sale in early June cleared the way. The mayor says dirt could be flying as soon as next week.

FILE - In this Feb.14, 2019 file photo, an Airbus A380, left, and a Boeing 747, both from Lufthansa airline pass each other at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. The United States and the European Union on Tuesday appeared close to clinching a deal to end a damaging dispute over subsidies to Airbus and Boeing and lift billions of dollars in punitive tariffs. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)
Airbus-Boeing deal eases US-EU tensions but conflicts remain

For now, though, a truce in the Boeing-Airbus dispute goes a long way toward repairing a huge relationship.

The Everett Post Office is shown with a "now hiring" sign in 2019. (Sue MIsao / Herald file)
Washington unemployment rate dipped to 5.3% in May

Private sector employment increased by 7,000 jobs and government employment increased by 1,300 jobs.

Boeing 737 Max airplanes, including one belonging to TUI Group, left, sit parked at a storage lot, Monday, April 26, 2021, near Boeing Field in Seattle.  Lawmakers, on Tuesday, May 18,  are asking Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration for records detailing production problems with two of the company's most popular airliners. The lawmakers are focusing on the Boeing 737 Max and a larger plane, the 787, which Boeing calls the Dreamliner.  (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Biden administration talking to China on Boeing Max approval

The planes remain banned in the country while other jurisdictions have reauthorized it following crashes.

Pho
You voted: The best pho in Snohomish County

Even during a pandemic, people still have their favorites

Supporters march Wednesday afternoon across from Providence Medical Center in Everett on May 5, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Everett nurses threaten to strike as contract talks stall

Union leaders say Providence’s latest offer includes low wages and cuts to benefits and paid leave.

Bothell man sentenced for illegally trading Amazon stock

He got confidential information from his wife, who was an Amazon finance employee at the time.

Snohomish roofing company fined $1.2M for safety violations

State inspectors noted a dozen “willful serious violations.” Allways Roofing says it will appeal.

Most Read