The future of higher ed

One more comment on this: The Covid crisis is highly likely to rapidly accelerate a preference cascade away from (bespoke) on-campus university/seminary education and towards (cost-efficient) distance ed. As everyone gets more comfortable with streaming video and tools like Zoom, people are going to figure out that paying for huge buildings with marble columns isn’t a value-add commensurate with the expense. I strongly suspect that almost all schools are seeing a big disruption to freshman commitments for Fall 2020 (and grad school/seminary equivalents).

In the same way that mediocre actors are stuck at local repertory theaters earning zilch and the best actors are drawn to Hollywood to earn gazillions, we can expect to see the best teachers delivering education to thousands of students and mediocre teachers stuck earning peanuts grading papers.

All that to say: this isn’t the last educational disruption that we’ll see over the next year or five, at SBTS or elsewhere.


Every several years the tech enthusiasts excitedly declare that the time has now really come when education will move online in a wholesale way, yet it never pans out – anyone remember MOOCs? Rather I think the poor experience with Zoom teaching this spring will turn students against online education.

This I think is likely to be true.

Thousands of students watching a video produced by the “best” teacher is to education what thousands of Christians watching a video produced by the “best” preacher and praise band is to worship.


Yeah, fair enough. Distance learning has been over-promising for an eon now. University of Phoenix started doing distance learning by fax in 1989 (I think) and via dial-up internet in 1996 (I think). At peak, University of Phoenix had 600,000+ students, the majority in online programs.

What killed (mostly–it does still exist) University of Phoenix was dozens of traditional universities like Arizona State University, Grand Canyon University and Duke starting their own online programs in the University of Phoenix model.

I agree that Zoom isn’t a great way to deliver education. It’s also nothing like how University of Phoenix or the current major online players deliver education. I have friends inside one of the major online players, and when they decided to close their physical campus due to Covid, they switched everyone into their online learning environment with a bare minimum of fuss or distress. Universities without strong online programs will likely see less success at this. That’s going to leave a mark.

What seems likely to me is that people are going to recognize that they’ve been paying a lot of money for an education that they can mostly get for a lot less online, with a lot less disruption to their lives.

The last time online education was seriously disrupted was when the financial crisis of 2008 cut state budgets for higher ed, and many schools resorted to online ed out of financial necessity. I think this crisis is likely to push a fair number of schools over into bankruptcy. The elite guys like Stanford and Harvard will continue to teach the scions and distaffs of government and industry in basically the same way that the scions of the aristocracy were educated in the Middle Ages. But I have serious doubts as to how long the traditional university campus model will last for the middle class and lower classes.

We can argue about what’s good or bad, but we are 15-20 years into the multi-campus megachurch model with a streaming preacher on the big video screen. It makes me scratch my head, but there’s clearly a large constituency for this model, largely because like with other forms of lecturing, there’s a wide disparity between OK preachers and really good preachers.

Well, yeah. Given the inflationary costs of education, this has been coming for a long time, and people have been talking about it for a long time, too. The liberals want to solve the problem by making college “free.” Yikes.


Fifty years ago college used to be nearly free, at least in my state. One very large reason why the cost of college has been going up so high is that state legislatures have been cutting way back on higher education spending. Perhaps that’s the right thing to do, or perhaps not, but we should at least acknowledge what has been happening.

Agreed. A college education has never in history cost more or been worth less. It’s a system ripe for major disruption. The margins on online education are insane, and that won’t go on forever.

This is true, but way, way more people as a percentage of the population are going to University than fifty years ago. When college is reserved for people heading for the professions, you can afford to make a bigger investment on a per-capita basis than when a college education is the only apparent ticket to the middle class.

That is true in general, but not for the research university system in my state – it takes the same percentage of population now as it did fifty years ago. No matter whether you count it by percentage of state budget, percentage of median per capita income, or funding per student, my state is spending much less money proportionally than it did back in the day when Boomers could cover a year of college costs by working a summer job.

Online education will continue to grow and a substantial number of bricks-and-mortar colleges will go under, but traditional in-person college education is here to stay. The reason is that few people can effectively learn without interacting with an instructor. Even if there are a couple hundred students in a class, they nevertheless learn more through live instruction in the lecture hall than by watching a video. Despite the hoopla, AI is not able to substitute for a real person and only appears to work because expectations are lowered. These facts are ignored by tech enthusiasts, but once an online class involves real-time interaction between student and professor, then costs go way up. The money saved by not having a classroom is lost by greater IT costs and the awkwardness and inefficiency of remote communication. Quality online education is not low cost and never will be. Instead, its value lies in providing access to people who otherwise could not attend college in person.

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This may be the case here or there. But, it is, I think, a minor consideration against the flood of money entering the market for university education. As with any market, the prices of a commodity or service rise until the source of money for them has been tapped out. You can see the same with the prices of medical products and services.

Why should state legislatures appropriate money for universities when those very universities can look to the Federal government for funding (via government-guaranteed loans to students)?

It’s a con game that will eventually take university education out of the market entirely when the consumers thereof decide that life-time debt enslavement isn’t worth the education it purchased.


We could never cover it with a summer job, even at unbelievably inexpensive Columbia Bible College. The only thing I could cover in San Diego was La Mesa (junior) College. UCSD and San Diego State were way out of my reach. On the other hand, CA has always been extravagant in what it gives its residents in tax money through the state higher education system. Thankfully, that gravy train is shrinking, and I say thankfully because, as bad as K-12 public education is for the soul of the nation’s children, higher is worser.

Meanwhile, talking to a prof elder of our church yesterday halfway through a ten year process writing a textbook for Oxford in his discipline, he has 800 students, currently. Think about that: 800. This is the reality at top-tier research universities, and this in the hard sciences. The influence of personal relationships gained at places like UCSD and IU is entirely fellow students and anyone who thinks our public education system is doing anything like mentoring/tutoring in more than half of one percent of students or less is fooling himself.

For a huge percentage of students, college is about cheating and getting drunk and laid for a few years before having to make any contribution to society. Unless you’re Asian, and then you work hard (and suffer being penalized in the California university system). As my friend who’s been at the top of administering a research uni for twenty years now while carrying on his research work, also, says, the modern uni is nothing more than a system of mass education. I would put it less charitably by saying a system of mass indoctrination. Not in the hard sciences where truth is still believed in and matters, but everywhere else. I once tried to get the VP of research at IU who was an inactive elder in my former congregation to read Newman’s Idea of a University. Good luck on that. He never came to church and his daughter was a divinity student at Yale.

I have little sympathy for higher education. People in it here in the US get paid far higher wages than in Europe. The cost increases have wildly exceeded the rate of inflation for decades now, and the ego-meter of those with the terminal degree has grown at an even wilder rate. I have sympathy with those in the hard sciences, but little anywhere else.

One interesting thing is watching the Cedarville College debacle right now and seeing the “Dr.” this and “Dr.” that before these guys’ names. Turns out they all got their bona fides from SBC seminaries. Sorry to hurt someone’s feelings, but what a joke. Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church right now is to ban anyone with anything above a masters from preaching or holding church office.

But hey, I love everybody, and don’t forget I’ve lived and worked in Boston, Wheaton, San Diego, Boulder, Madison, and Bloomington.


On this we agree 100%. But I believe that the traditional in-person college education will become much more of a luxury good, as it was 50+ years ago.

“Watching videos” is not how online education is predominantly done. There will be a role for “watching videos,” but it’s not the general model for successful online ed currently.

And student/teacher interaction need not be synchronous either: Discussion boards work great. That keeps interaction high and costs low.

To date, online education hasn’t been inexpensive because it’s been competing against in-person education for federal financial aid dollars. Without Title IV funding online degrees for–in effect–whatever universities want to charge, the costs could come way down. I’m not kidding when I say that University of Phoenix’s margins on online courses was insane. One of the reasons that University of Phoenix got its lunch eaten is because when the more traditional players entered the online ed game ~12 years ago, they under-cut Phoenix’s margins and University of Phoenix found themselves charging more for what was seen in the eyes of prospective students as an inferior product. (Would you rather have a Master’s degree from Arizona State University or University of Phoenix?) The reason University of Phoenix was able to charge so much between (say) 2001 and 2008 was because they were about the only people around with an effective online learning model for adult students. Once others got into the game, the margins couldn’t be sustained.

That’s very interesting. I didn’t know that.

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Actually, Tim, I agree with much of what you say.

My main reason for pointing out that states (and not just California) used to provide much more funding to their universities so that tuition was much cheaper decades ago was to demonstrate yet another example of how the Boomer generation did not pass on what they received from prior generations to succeeding generations. Instead the younger generation gets loans that are not dischargable in bankruptcy, which I think is a real injustice.

Is the higher education sector bloated and not providing much value? Sure. But why have so many students been flocking to college – is it because they are drawn to the life of the mind? No, it’s because they have been told that getting a college degree is the only way to get a good job, which has been mostly true for the past couple of decades. If there were still lots of well-paying jobs for people without college degrees, then there wouldn’t be a higher education bubble. And there used to be lots more well-paying jobs for non-degree holders – back when the Boomers came of age. Yet another example of how the younger generation is getting a raw deal.

Is the exorbitant expense of college a sad fact of life that can’t be helped? No, because it used to be otherwise, and if it used to be otherwise, then it can be changed. Not that I am really arguing for free college for everyone. What I want is acknowledgement that our current situation is not an inevitable fact of the universe but instead a deliberate policy choice largely implemented by a hypocritical Boomer generation that has held the political reins of the nation over the past several decades. Abortion is not the only way that the Boomers have wielded destruction on the younger generations.


I agree with all of what you say, Joel, but I would like to point out that the oldest Boomer was 20 (and unable to vote) when the Immigration Act of 1965 was passed, and all of 28 when the Supremes handed down Roe v. Wade. The term “counterculture” was coined in 1960, when the oldest Boomer was 16.

That’s not to say that the Boomers couldn’t have stopped this nonsense any time they’d wanted to since 1980: They could have. But the rot set in earlier than we think and the Boomers walked in the footsteps of their so-called Greatest Generation and Silent Generation forbears.

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No, you have it backwards. Fifty years ago was 1970, when my state had recently built new campuses to accommodate the baby boom and provide mass college education at low cost to students. Higher education has become substantially more elitist since then – there is no way many older people today could now get into the colleges they attended when younger. The inexplicably grueling process of getting into an elite school finally made sense to me once I realized that the extracurricular activities that elite schools valued were much easier to accomplish if one’s family had wealth and connections.

I agree, but what else did you mean by, we can expect to see the best teachers delivering education to thousands of students and mediocre teachers stuck earning peanuts grading papers? How is anyone going to deliver education to thousands except by video?

I disagree. Communication among a group of people is so much more efficient when they are in a room together at the same time. Teleconference is more efficient than chat, and chat is more efficient than asynchronous comments. The reason online education isn’t taking off like the enthusiasts expect is because discussion boards are a difficult way to interact and learn for most people.

I think this is true. But if online education is such a great thing, why didn’t U. Phoenix continue to dominate since they had such a big head start? And why did U. Phoenix appear to offer an inferior product? And why are the traditional players with the strongest brands the most hesitant to enter the online arena, especially for degrees wholly obtained online? Educational disruption is just around the corner, the technology enthusiasts insist, but it never arrives. And this is because quality online education isn’t cheap or easy. Instead, its main value is in providing access.

Yes, many of the Boomer icons, like Bob Dylan, are actually from the Silent Generation, and I include them with the Boomers.

One big difference between the Greatest Generation and the Boomers is that the former transferred resources from old to young whereas the latter transfer resources from young to old.

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Just saw this headline, and thought it was worth sharing:

Where does time go? I’d date tertiary-education-as-a-middle-class-commodity to the passage of the GI Bill, which happened in 1944. I guess that means 75 years, not 50. Good catch.

This is true only at the elite level, largely because capacity at elite schools hasn’t kept pace with population increases in this country. Not many Boomers who went to big state schools couldn’t get into those schools today. Maybe in California, but not most places. And today (well, pre-Covid “today”), not many people can’t find a way to go to some college if they want to. If you had a wife and kids and a mortgage in 1970, you weren’t going to college, full stop.

Yeah, that was not articulated well on my part. Videos from excellent lecturers will probably be part of the equation, especially since videos are a standard way of taking in content these days. Elite lecturers will likely still be coveted by elite universities who can afford to pay for them, possibly in conjunction with video lectures. But I doubt that “watching videos” will ever be how someone would describe a degree program even in the future.

I suspect that the winners will be those who can structure curriculum and content with the right amount of the right kind of solitary intake (reading, videos) with the right kind of interactions to make for successful student learning. People are already a long way down this road.

University of Phoenix’s model was essentially public-domain from the start: Short courses, one course at a time, part-time practitioner faculty, discussion-based learning. (The online model was asynchronous discussion.) Traditional universities are very stuck in their traditions, including strong faculty control. Traditional faculty hated the University of Phoenix model, in no small part because it took power away from faculty.

Well, fast-forward to 2008-2010 and state legislatures started cutting budgets for state universities like crazy. Now the choice stopped being, “Should we adopt the University of Phoenix model or should we mock them as McDonalds University” and started being, “Should we adopt the University of Phoenix model or cut the university’s budget?” Unsurprisingly, many adopted the University of Phoenix model (to a greater or lesser extent), although surely none of them would call it that. Since University of Phoenix’s product was perceived as shoddy (you indicate this perception here in this thread), consumers switched to traditional schools’ online offerings and away from University of Phoenix’s offering.

University of Phoenix’s learning outcomes were entirely comparable to more traditional universities that served similar demographics (poorer, more heavily minority, more first-time college students, etc.). One could say that traditional universities don’t generally view this student population with a lot of fondness, nor do they view iconoclastic innovators in the university system with a lot of fondness. (I can’t think of anyone other than Catholic priests and university people who wear medieval dress with any regularity in our modern society.)

For the same reason that Rolls Royce still isn’t mass-producing cars. There has never been a business case for them to do so. MIT can post all their course lectures on iTunes U. What does it cost them? They record them anyway. Most folks can’t understand most of the lectures, so if you can, good on you. You still don’t get a degree, and MIT degrees are still the gold standard for engineering in the US and will be for the foreseeable future. Nobody is cross-shopping between University of Phoenix and MIT, or even Arizona State University and MIT. Access has never been a concern for these types of schools, either. The truly elite schools just aren’t competing for student dollars or state budgets with the lower players. And there’s no question that Harvard students get a bespoke education, and will for the foreseeable future.

University of Phoenix claims a million alumni. (Not all of those will have been online students, but I’d guess that about 3/4 of them are.) I was on the phone with another non-traditional online player this morning and they claim over 100,000 current students and 150,000 graduates. Online degrees are not a niche thing anymore. And as we speak, almost every college student in the US who is learning is doing so online.


Talking to a friend yesterday who moved his Uni onto Zoom at beginning of COVID-19 over in Germany because their in-house system went bust the day before rollout. He said over just two days last week, they had 6,000 Zoom meetings with a combined 60,000 participants. He’d learned to use Zoom here at IU teaching for Kelly School of Business. At Kelly, distance learning makes them all their money and they lose money on their on-location grad education.