I was reading John Gravois on “The College For-Profits Should Fear” in the Washington Monthly and Paul Campos’ continuing jeremiads about legal education (and this) and I more and more have the feeling that American universities are headed for a newspaper-style, technologically-induced giant collapse at some point in the not-to-distant future.
The policy issues are complicated and controversial and people sometimes think too hard about their feelings about student loans or Pell Grants or what have you and sort of miss the forest. A college, or a law school, is basically supposed to be conveying information to people. This is an activity that’s become radically cheaper and easier over the past twenty years. Whether you want to know what Kaldor-Hicks efficiency is or how to tie a pratt knot for your tie or see how the population of American cities has evolved over time your task has become enormously easier.
Learning is cheaper and easier than ever. And yet getting a degree is more expensive. How’s that? Something’s off, in a big way. Now of course you can push this too far: “Does Yglesias think we don’t need colleges because people can just look things up on Wikipedia instead?” No, I don’t. But I do remember hearing a lot of bluster from old-line media outlets once upon a time that proved to be completely wrong. The difference is that endowments mean many universities are basically immune to “going out of business” but in some ways that only makes the problem more acute for the laggards because competition between non-profits in a world of zero marginal cost distribution should be intense. Nobody’s quite figured this out yet, but I think this may actually have much less to do with “policy” issues than people in DC are predisposed to think. Sometimes it just takes time for real people operating in real institutions to come up with the best and most workable forms of ideas. But when it comes, I it’ll transform the landscape. University administration are having terrible problems answering the basic question—if learning is cheaper than ever, why is teaching ever-more-expensive?