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Between Everything and Nothing

Associate Professor
School of Public Policy

Richard BarkeUnless campuses disappear as computer screens replace colleges, C21U must be thinking broadly about the future of Georgia Tech and other universities. Here are a few relevant questions.

1.  What is “the Problem”?

A recent report from Ernst and Young includes four useful points. First, "public institutions will increasingly be run like corporations, while seeking to maintain the freedom of inquiry and academic rigor that their long-term reputation depends on." That will be an interesting balance. Second, "universities will need to have a clear strategy and execution around target student segments and their specific needs and preferences"—for example, nontraditional students in an aging population. Third, "most universities at present have significantly more support staff than academic staff—this ratio will have to change." The proof is left to the reader. Finally, we should consider how to fulfill “the ‘public good’ role of universities,” which often is overlooked in discussions about the functions and future of universities.

Rising costs and student loans, declining public sector support, and new educational technologies are serious issues but not entirely new, and the challenges can be exaggerated. Many aspects of today’s university remain strong: they’re still research and learning powerhouses, applications are rising, etc. The current cost model is neither sustainable nor socially optimal, and it's wonderful to imagine helping millions of people learn.  But the current system is hardly a radical failure.

The demand for a Georgia Tech education gets stronger every year, even as tuition increases. Tech’s Return on Investment is stellar. Students are far from miserable, uneducated, and impoverished. Part of the strategy in the marketing of a new product is claiming that existing competitors are obsolete. But telling the world that our "production process" is fundamentally flawed and our "product" will be obsolete in a few years can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: our customers and supporters might respond by shifting resources away. Let’s not declare defeat prematurely. The Next New Thing might turn out to be the paperless office of 1990.

2.  What is the Business Model?

“Markets” and “business models” for universities are useful concepts but also can be misleading. In higher education competition is constrained and participants are hardly perfectly informed, prices are sticky and don’t reflect the costs or value of production, and there are huge positive externalities. Is Emory 4.3 times as educational as Tech, based on the difference in tuition? Is Georgia Tech 1.7 percent "better" than GSU? Do out-of-state students get three times as much "quality" as in-state students? In markets, customers cannot be required to take uninteresting courses, or be put on probation or dismissed.

College prices represent a complex bundle of costs, internal and external subsidies, philanthropy, demand, and many dimensions of "quality" (instruction, reputation, job prospects, campus quality of life, etc.)  Likewise, the willingness of parents, students, and states to pay is complicated. And the public good function of the university, in producing human capital and research findings that are not appropriable by the payers, means that a purely financial model cannot completely assess how a university's functions are performed. Revenues and expenditures must be (roughly) matched, but a university is not (yet) a business. We need an appropriate model.

3.  What is the Product?

In the Infinite Bandwidth world, learning won’t be constrained by a narrow course or curriculum; students can find data, analysis, explanation and a lot of garbage anywhere and instantly. What will universities make of this – with or without MOOCs? How will reliable information be distinguished from scams and rants, and how will learning and knowledge be disciplined (mandatory core subjects, consistent course content, etc.) in an interdisciplinary plugged-in world? Traditional students will continue to seek traditional degrees, but leading universities will become more agile, offering alternative forms of learning.

Several years ago President Peterson asked whether it’s necessary that a course be 45 hours of a student sitting in a desk with an exam at the end. Assuming the non-disappearance of the university, campus, and courses, we should be focusing on his question:  how will students be learning in 2035? Surely there will be changes in addition to online learning.  C21U should be at the forefront in asking about many of the relevant changes, not just MOOCs. Georgia Tech’s X-Degree program will allow experimentation in a customizable degree option, but innovation is happening constantly all over our campus.

We must remember that what people seek from college is more than the content of courses, corrections by online peers, or even a certified degree.  College is an educational experience where social skills are developed, ideas and values are challenged, serendipitous learning happens in classrooms and dorm rooms, and not least, lifetime professional networks are formed. The “product” is much more complicated than a set of syllabi and grades. In our zeal for efficiency, cost saving, and being at the technological forefront, we should remember that our inputs are incomplete teenagers and our outputs are complicated young adults. Do we understand creativity and development well enough to know how a student interacting with others solely over a computer monitor will compare to a student who has been challenged by an odd roommate, by chance conversations over coffee, or by organizing a fund-raising drive for her sorority?

4.  Who Decides?

A fourth major issue for universities is governance, as the MOOC controversy is demonstrating. University governance has been difficult for 800 years and will continue to be. Decisions are spread across faculty, schools and departments, colleges, administrators, the Board of Regents, and public funders. Shared governance is essential and appears in Georgia Tech’s statues and bylaws, but it is not always embraced.

The basic issues of "what are the functions of the university, what is the priority of each, how are they executed, and how do we measure their costs and benefits?" have always been challenging. For example, what will happen to the research functions of the university if teaching jobs are replaced by online courses? The faculty have been told there's a tsunami coming but to wait for further instructions, that the train-is-leaving-the-station but no one knows where it’s going, that the brick-and-mortar university is obsolete, and that Coursera would have no interest in for-credit courses or degrees. The train may turn out to be a DeLorean and the tsunami may become a wave, but who should decide? The direction of higher education in the 21st century will depend not just on advances in educational technology but also on who defines and decides these types of issues.

There is some inevitability to new education technology, and certainly it can be used wisely. But the optimal use of the new tools surely is someplace between Everything and Nothing, and faculty are a vital part of finding the proper balance between “the problem,” our management models, and our “product.” The university of the 21st century deserves a broad perspective on all of our problems and opportunities.

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