The Real Future of College: Cheaper, But Not All Online

So much of the talk of higher education reformers lately concerns the coming of all online universities. Harder, Better, Faster, Cheaper, right? But colleges are about real people and real people often, well, don’t really want to spend college in front of a computer in their apartments. Students still want to go to real college.

And that’s why Vance Fried, professor of entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University, explains that college is going to get radically cheaper in coming years, but not because everyone’s taking courses online. They’ll still be living and dorms and going to frat parties. As he writes in College 2020, his newest paper:

Overall, Online 2.0 provides higher quality, full flexibility, and drastically lower cost. However, the campus-based college will not disappear. Live discussion among students and faculty can be very useful to students in gaining an understanding of higher order concepts and their advanced applications. From both a quality and a cost standpoint, live discussion works best in a campus-based setting.

While most courses in the college of the future will be self-paced, some will be fully synchronous. Students will do self-paced online work focused on acquiring several different competencies and then take a synchronous class (or mini-class) aimed at integrating and applying multiple concepts through discussion or projects.

What this means, basically, is that college will potentially get cheaper and more adaptive due to technology but people are still going to go to real classes in real places. What’s going on here, the real change, is not Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), attractive as that fad may be; what matters is that colleges of the future may adopt online education to work with, and improve on, regular courses.

This would be a very different, and potentially much cheaper, form of college education, but from a large-scale perspective it won’t really look that much different. We’ll still have people living in dormitories and going to class; they might just have only one professor for 2,000 students across multiple schools.

Fried suggests that we could do the whole thing very cheaply, and by 2020 colleges could run entire (residential) academic program and charge under $8,000 a year in tuition.

Daniel Luzer

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