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The Forces Are Not With You

Three concurrent phenomena threaten the future of liberal arts education.

My husband recently retired after 40 years in education. He's done everything from teaching (high school and college) to publishing (textbooks and software) to consulting. He's seen every swing of the pendulum--very little impresses him as a true game changer.

But when Harvard and MIT announced edX, their joint online open-education initiative, he made the kind of sweeping statement that he would have scoffed at in the past: "This might be the death knell of the traditional college."

The Ivy League is not about to collapse any time soon, but, in that announcement, my husband recognized the forces that are fundamentally challenging the assumptions and the future of traditional higher education.

The first force, of course, is technology. If someone in rural Iowa can take an engineering course for free at Harvard, what are the implications for Iowa State?

Skeptics may point out that the course is non-credited, so it has no real standing in the world. But consider this: Technology may soon permit "seat-time" credits to be replaced by rigorous demonstration of knowledge and skill, however and wherever these are learned. And that demonstrable skill acquisition may turn out to be more valuable in the real world than a degree based on credits.

Which leads me to the second imploding force in higher ed: the cost of those credits. A private four-year college degree easily runs to $200,000. Public institutions are not much cheaper. My in-state tuition at the University of Michigan in 1974 was (this is not a typo) $800 per year; including all expenses, a four-year degree cost about $10,000 back then. Today, that same degree runs more than $100,000. This kind of hyperinflation is forcing young people to find other--non-credited--pathways to adulthood and careers.

Statistics do show that people with college degrees have better jobs and more economic security than people without. But--and here is force No. 3--right now our college grads, many of whom are saddled with crushing lifetime debt, are flooding an economy that cannot provide them with jobs, much less lucrative careers.

Moreover, college is not--nor has it ever been--"job training." Even grads with "practical" degrees (such as engineering) are rarely trained for specific jobs, but rather given foundational knowledge for their chosen professions. Higher education's historic calling has been to teach young people how to think and reason; to prepare them for whatever choices life presents; and to help them become thoughtful, contributing members of civil society.

That is an invaluable mission. But weighed against a $200K price tag with no guarantee of a good job, many families may choose to invest their money in something other than a liberal arts degree.

And who could blame them? I am the proud product of a liberal arts education, but I would seriously counsel a young person today to rethink a traditional college education. Does anybody have a counterargument for me? Please?

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at therese@educationworksconsulting.com.

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