net.wars: A matter of degree

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 04 May 2012

What matters about a university degree? Is it the credential, the interaction with peers and professors, the chance to play a little while longer before turning adult, or the stuff you actually learn? Given how much a degree costs, these are pressing questions for the college-bound and their parents.

Wendy M Grossman

This is particularly true in the US, where today's tuition fees at Cornell University's College of Arts and Sciences, are 14 times what they were when I started there as a freshman in 1971. This week, CNBC highlighted the costs of liberal arts colleges such as Colorado's Pepperdine, where tuition, housing, and meals add up to $54,000 a year. Hah, said friends: it's $56,000 at Haverford, where their son is a sophomore.

These are crazy numbers even if you pursue a "sensible" degree, like engineering, mathematics, or a science. In fact, it's beginning to approach the level after which a top-class private university degree no longer makes the barest economic sense. A Reuters study announced this week found that the difference between a two-year "associate" degree and a four-year BA or BSc over the course of a 30-year career is $500,000 to $600,000 (enough to pay for your child's college degree, maybe). Over a career a college degree adds about $1 million over a high school diploma, depending on the major you pick and the field you go into. An accountant could argue that there's still some room for additional tuition increases – but then, even if that accountant has teenaged kids his earnings are likely well above average.

Anthony Carnevale, the director of the center that conducted this research, tells Reuters this is a commercialization of education. Yes, of course – but if college costs as much per child as the family home inevitably commercial considerations will apply even if you don't accept Paypal founder Peter Thiel's argument about a higher education bubble.

All this provides context for this week's announcement that Harvard and MIT are funding a $60 million initiative, EDx, to provide online courses for all and sundry. Given that Britain's relatively venerable Open University was set up in 1969 to bring university-level education to a wide range of non-traditional students, remote learning is nothing new. Still, EDx is one of a number of new online education initiatives.

Experimentation with using the Internet as a delivery medium for higher education began in the mid 1990s (TXT). The Open University augmented the ability for students to interact with each other by adding online conferencing to its media mix, and many other institutions began offering online degrees. Almost the only dissenting voice at the time was that of David F. Noble, a professor at Canada's York University. In a series of essays written from 1997 to 2001, Digital Diploma Mills he criticized the commercialization of higher education and the move toward online instruction. Coursework that formerly belonged to professors and teachers, he argued, would now become a product sold by the university itself; copyright ownership would be crucial. By 2001, he was writing about the failure of many of the online ventures to return the additional revenues their institutions had hoped for.

When I wrote about these various concerns in 1999 for Scientific American (TXT) reader email accused me of being an entitled elitist and gleefully threatened me with a wave of highly motivated, previously locked-out students who would sweep the world. The main thing I hoped I highlighted, however, was the comparatively high drop-out rate of online students. This is a pattern that has continued through to mid-2000s today with little change. This seems to me a significant problem for the industry – but explains why MIT and Harvard, like some other recent newcomers, are talking about charging for exams or completion certificates rather than the courses themselves. Education on the shareware model: certainly fairer for students hoping for career advancement and great for people who just want to learn from the best brands. (Not, thankfully, the future envisaged by one of the interviewees in those articles, who feared online education would be dominated by Microsoft and Disney).

In an economic context, the US's endemic credentialism means it's the certificate that has economic value, not necessarily the learning itself. But across the wider world, it's easy to imagine local authorities taking advantage of the courses that are available and setting their own exams and certification systems. For Harvard and MIT, the courses may also provide a way of spotting far-flung talent to scoop up and educate more traditionally.

Of course, economics are not the only reason to go to college: it may make other kinds of sense. Today's college-educated parents often want their kids to go to college for more complex reasons to do with quality of life, adaptability to a changing future, and the kind of person they would like their kids to be. In my own case, the education I had gave me choices and the confidence that I could learn anything if I needed to. That sort of motivation, sadly, is being priced out of the middle class. Soon it will be open only to the very talented and poor who qualify for scholarships, and the very wealthy who can afford the luxury. No wonder the market sees an opportunity.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) (but please turn off HTML).