In the United States, many people can no longer afford to get a four-year college degree — even though most jobs that pay a middle-class salary require it. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project:
A March 2012 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 60% of American adults viewed universities as having a positive effect on how things are going in the country and 84% of college graduates say that the expense of going to college was a good investment for them.2 Yet another Pew Research Center survey in 2011 found that 75% of adults say college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.3 Moreover, 57% said that the higher education system in the U.S. fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.
So what will replace college for recent high school graduates who want or need more education before getting jobs?
Pew researchers asked over 1,000 education experts and professors what they thought would happen to higher education, and 60% agreed with the following scenario:
By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today. There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources. Significant numbers of learning activities will move to individualized, just-in-time learning approaches. There will be a transition to "hybrid" classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings. Most universities' assessment of learning will take into account more individually-oriented outcomes and capacities that are relevant to subject mastery. Requirements for graduation will be significantly shifted to customized outcomes.
So the future might be something like what Ernest Cline predicts in his novel Ready Player One, where the main character, an impoverished teenager who lives in a vast trailer park, logs into school every day from a computer he's hidden in an abandoned van.
The question is whether college is just about going to classes and taking tests. Or is what learn there something that can only happen if a bunch of people come together in one place from a variety of backgrounds? Certainly one of the best parts of college and graduate school for me was what happened outside the classroom. I learned more about life and the topics I was studying from friends, from colleagues in study groups, and from events on the UC Berkeley campus where I could do things like personally ask Barbara Ehrenreich and Slavoj Zizek questions about their work. Would it possible to still have experiences like that if you didn't actually attend college, and instead just took distance learning courses?
It's tempting to take the "get off my lawn, you cyber-whippersnappers" perspective, and say no. But to return to Ready Player One for a moment, what we learn in that novel is that the kids who do distance learning also figure out ways to meet each other "off campus" as it were, in virtual worlds where they forge lasting friendships and learn from each other. I wonder if a place like Reddit, where people have conversations that range from goofing off to learning serious science, might take on the role that my study groups did in grad school. Certainly the "ask me anything" threads on Reddit, where famous and interesting people come in to answer any question you like, mirror my experience of going to special lectures at Berkeley.
What's interesting is that Reddit already has many characteristics of college social life, both good and bad. People go there to learn from each other and make friends; but there are also places on Reddit that are dangerous and rapey. Just like college life.
As we move into a future where distance learning becomes the norm because almost nobody can afford a full-time, four-year education away from home, we need to be thinking about what will replace our college social lives as well as our classroom experiences. Reddit is one possibility. Another might be real-life study groups that form out of online discussion boards on specific topics. Maybe colleges will realize that socializing is a crucial part of the university experience, and build Reddit-like social spaces into their distance learning services.
Still another possibility, which I'm surprised nobody talks about more often, is that fewer people will go to college. Vocational schools might become more popular. People who want technical jobs might demonstrate their proficiency by going out and doing scientific or technical experiments, then posting them online. The next generation may prove that they never needed four years of breadth requirements to do professional work the first place.
Illustration by Palto via Shutterstock