The future of higher education is perhaps in flux. With constant complaints about the cost of higher education now dominating the media and a whole bunch of education reformers talking about the potential for “innovation” to “transform” college, it’s a little unclear what all of this is going to look like in coming years.

Perhaps not so great, argues Nicholas Lemann in a recent piece in the New Yorker, “The Cost of College.” Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a former editor at the Monthly, explains that education is coming to reflect, or perhaps promote, inequality in America:

Now that we know that either Obama or Romney will be President next year, we also know that, from 1989 through at least 2017, every President of the United States will have had a degree from either Harvard or Yale or, in the case of George W. Bush, both. That could be a three-decade accident, or it may be a sign of something lasting—the educational version of the inequality surge, elevating “one per cent” institutions far above the rest.


This has policy implications, because the best schools see change coming and can adapt to it. How they adapt, however, is interesting. Lemann,

The top schools, led by Stanford, are now aggressively exploring online education, which they had previously left to the for-profits. This doesn’t mean that they will suddenly start granting degrees online to ten or a hundred times as many students; instead, they are likely to offer a second, cheaper (or even free) tier of education that will only enhance the lifelong value of their traditional, in-residence degrees.

In higher education, the United States may be on its way to becoming more like the rest of the world, with a small group of schools controlling access to life membership in the élite. And higher education is becoming more like other areas of American life, with the fortunate few institutions distancing themselves ever further from the many. All those things which commencement speakers talk about—personal growth, critical-thinking skills, intellectual exploration, breadth of learning—will survive at the top institutions, but other colleges will come under increased pressure to adopt the model of trade schools.

That’s an interesting point and probably accurate. The presidential candidates are essentially through with their argument about student loan interest rates and have moved on to other things. But the innovation point is crucial.

If instead of using public policy to generously support public higher education and keep tuition low, we eagerly use it to support online education, that’s going to help some schools and companies a great deal, but students don’t necessarily come out on top.

Lemann points out the very important problem with online education goes beyond active scamming and low completion rates. The more public policy aims to promote online education, the more education changes. Promoting practical, vocational online education won’t bring high quality higher education to the masses, but actually keep it even farther away.

That’s probably not what we want as a culture.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer