The last of the college applications have been rewritten, tweaked and polished and at last entrusted to the tender mercies of the U.S. mail or the Internet. Fretting over deadlines morphs into waiting, and yearning, wishing and praying for coveted letters of acceptance. This is the annual crisis in thousands of homes with ambitious high school seniors -- the high school seniors and their parents who still believe that college is the route to the American Dream.
But wait. While they play the conventional game of aspiration, certain scholars, economists and hundreds of thousands of "concerned citizens" have initiated a different debate, and the debate is growing. They're talking about the changes in university life and whether we should continue up the garden path worn bare over the decades. The debate is over the "higher education bubble," a phrase popularized by Glenn Reynolds, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee, who compares what's happening in higher education to what happened when housing became a feverish exercise in speculation.
"Bubbles form when too many people expect values to go up forever," Mr. Reynolds says. "Bubbles burst when there are no longer enough excessively optimistic and ignorant folks to fuel them. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen already where education is concerned." With so much fat in the system, the knowledge protein may not be enough to produce the intellectual muscle needed for a prosperous life in the 21st century. Like fast food and high energy drinks, empty education calories offer only temporary highs.
"The college presidents with their $1 million-plus salaries, and bloated administrative staffs, the whole system of tenure has turned out to be as much a recipe for intellectual conformity as it is a fiscal nightmare," observes the New Criterion, a magazine that closely follows the politicization of the university. In the decade after 2001, the number of administrators grew 50 times faster than the number of instructors, according to the U.S. Department of Education. A decline in the hours spent in teaching by tenured professors coincides with sharply increasing tuition fees to pay for luxury dorms, dining halls and gyms that have little to do with actual learning but everything to do with bulking up the academic bureaucracy.
With tightening family budgets, the high debt that accompanies students to college and an increasing public reckoning of diminishing value, college becomes a risky investment. Hundreds of parents are concluding that it may not be worth it. Moody's Investors Service, the credit rating firm, finds that students are "increasingly attending more affordable community colleges, studying part time, or electing to enter the work force without the benefit of a college education." Total student debt now approaches a trillion dollars.
That's the bad news. The good news is that new technology offers less expensive access to information, providing quality goods at lower cost.
In prophesying the end of the university as we know it, Nathan Harden, author of "Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad," finds a silver lining in the crisis, an innovative challenge that goes beyond avoiding the pitfalls in the long title of his book. Students seeking knowledge could pay a fraction of what they do now to get an education, often a better education, as streaming videos replace live lectures, and professors and students employ the Internet to exchange papers and exams, and join in conversations over the course work.
"If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before," writes Mr. Harden in American Interest magazine.
Textbooks are already less expensive in the ebook edition. Students can read out-of-copyright books free on the Internet's Project Gutenberg. If the best professors and universities participate, the virtual classroom can reach millions of students. When computer-guided learning is combined with traditional classroom discussion, students learn faster. High tech plus human contact forges a powerful union.
There are obstacles aplenty to improving higher education for less money, but the trends inspire optimism. One professor of computer science at Stanford discovered he could reach as many online students in one year as it would take to reach in 250 years in a college classroom. Harvard and MIT now offer a credentialed certificate for students who complete their online courses and can show a mastery of the material.
The monks who salvaged the classics, recording them with painful diligence on papyrus, nevertheless lost their jobs with Johann Gutenberg's invention of moveable type. If there's a phoenix to rise from the ashes of university excess, then bandwidth, RAM and gigabytes must assist its flight. When fleet-footed Hermes is reincarnated as a courier of fast-forward high tech, the university bubble may burst in many directions, accelerating the delivery of information.
There's a caution (as there always is). The speed with which information is delivered has little to do with the achievement of wisdom. As the Bard would say, "Aye, there's the rub."
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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