What are colleges for, anyhow?

Carey examines a whole host of issues facing higher education, but the central protagonist of his article is the discount online university StraighterLine. The university, headed by Harvard alum Burck Smith, is trying to transform the way students receive a college education by duplicating a business model similar airliner Ryanair — an obsessive (bordering on comical) attitude toward reducing overhead and prices. StaighterLine offers online courses with access to tutors for $99 a month, a fraction of other discount universities, never mind the ones with red brick buildings and grassy commons.

A college education needs to be more affordable and available; however, StraighterLine misunderstands the purpose of a university. The purpose of going to college is not to get a diploma, but to learn. Education has its own value in of itself — it isn’t merely a tool for getting a job. If the whole focus of a university is to allow students to advance as quickly as possible to get a diploma, then they have fundamentally violated the spirit of what it means to be a university: a center of learning and discovery. Yes, this is an ideal, but we need institutions that stand against the reduction of education to a simple means-end enterprise.

Carey predicts that the elite and specialized universities will survive the revolution because they offer prestige or the kind of education that is immune to mass production. Nevertheless, would our students really be better served by a higher-education system of small and specialized universities where there was a limited possibility for intellectual discovery beyond their own narrow course concentration?

Carey’s sympathies are clearly with the StraighterLine, though he acknowledges traditional universities might be around for “another decade or two.” He cites the psychological and regulatory as barriers to their obsolescence — “most people are so invested in the idea of education-by-institution that it’s hard to imagine another way.”

But education-by-institution is not simply a psychological comfort — it is core to learning. A university uniquely allows students to sit together in the same room and exchange ideas (this is supposedly reproducible on the Internet, but can anyone remember the last webinar they actually enjoyed?). Universities and students compete in a market for each other, but it’s not a market that ought not depend on the relentless drive for profits the way an airline or retailer competes. However, if Burck Smith wants to tackle healthcare, let him have at it.

The views expressed in this blog do not represent the views or opinions of Generations United.