Higher education -- the key to successful middle-class life -- is on the brink of a major transformation in America, experts say. Wealthy families will continue sending their children to expensive, prestigious universities. But most average youths will learn through lower-cost online courses, perhaps mixed with partial classroom attendance.
Two new books predict this impending change. They are Higher Education in the Digital Age by former Princeton University President William Bowen, and College (Un)bound by Jeffrey Selingo of the Chronicle of Higher Education. They outline this picture:
Nearly 80 percent of America's college students attend less-expensive state-owned institutions. But hard-strapped state legislatures have drastically cut taxpayer support for the schools -- from an average of $10,195 per student in 2002 to $5,900 in 2012 -- while college operating costs keep climbing. As a result, state schools have been forced to raise tuition repeatedly, piling worse burdens on average families. The College Board says tuition and fees at four-year public colleges have risen 257 percent in the past 30 years, after adjusting for inflation.
Dr. Bowen's book says a "tsunami" of online learning soon will sweep universities, reducing student expense. Already, the trend can be seen in MOOCs (massive open online courses) that so far have been presented mostly free, without credit. Other changes are snowballing. A Washington Monthly review says:
"Colleges and universities are looking to online education for a technological fix to the cost disease. If a professor can tape a series of lectures once and doesn't need to physically show up twice a week to give essentially the same performances over and over again, she can teach additional subjects. And if thousands of students can watch lectures in their dorm rooms or at Starbucks, the need for new auditoriums and classrooms is reduced. Given the potential cost savings, it's not surprising that universities are shifting to digital course offerings. The number of students taking at least one online class has increased from one in 10 in 2002 to one in three today."
Most experts support a "hybrid" approach in which students use online lectures and tests, but meet periodically face-to-face with instructors for discussions. This formula is called "flipping the classroom."Will this transformation reduce college expense for average families and lessen the horrible burden of student loan debt? We certainly hope so. Keep reading news reports and watch for developments.