The fate of American higher education has been a central concern of The New Criterion from its very first issue in September 1982. About academia, as about other cultural institutions—the art museums, orchestras, media and entertainment industries, as well as the law and those social institutions through which the past perpetuates itself into the present—The New Criterion has cast a wary eye, celebrating the vital, where it can be found, but also criticizing the many signs of decadence and irresponsibility wherever they have been on display, which, alas, has been almost everywhere. When it came to the academic world, our chief complaints have revolved around the anti-Western politicization of intellectual life. We focused on the way ideology subjugated the life of the mind to the hermetic lucubrations of deconstruction, post-structuralism, and all the other increasingly quaint-sounding efforts to dismiss or subvert the main currents of what Matthew Arnold famously extolled as “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”

There has never been any shortage of material. Since the onslaughts of the 1960s, anyway, the world of academia has presented critical observers concerned with upholding that Arnoldian ideal with a pullulating embarrassment of, well, not riches, exactly: let’s just call it one large, dissectible embarrassment and leave it at that.

None of what we have anatomized these thirty-odd years has gone away. If anything, the politicization of the university is worse now than it was when The New Criterion first appeared on the scene. If “the closing of the American mind” or the careers of “tenured radicals” grab fewer headlines today, it is because the realities they name have lost the luster of novelty. They are now the common, institutionalized status quo that defines university life for most of twenty million plus souls who are now matriculated in what we still describe (and with a straight face) as “higher education.”

It is not surprising that many observers despair of achieving fundamental, recuperative change in the institutions of higher education. Decades of withering criticism haven’t done much to move the needle, not least because parents still look to the credential of a BA, especially a BA from a prestigious venue, as a card of entry to the good life of the American dream.

That assumption, we believe, is about to change—is already changing. There are several sources of pressure. One has to do with the changing nature of the American dream itself: Can our society, debt-ridden as it is, continue to offer widespread material rewards to millions of college graduates?

Two related but separate issues revolve around the inner metabolism of higher education, in particular its astronomical and still escalating costs and—an even bigger reality—the wave of technological innovation that is poised to break over the entire institution of higher education like a tsunami.

Elsewhere in this issue, James Bowman ruminates on the economist Herb Stein’s observation that whatever can’t go on forever, won’t, and he explores this idea’s applicability to politics. Mr. Bowman denominates that seeming tautology as “Stein’s Law.” It is said that tautologies, being necessary truths, can have no contingent, i.e., real-life consequences. “It is what it is,” “Que sera, sera”: such clichés add nothing to our stock of knowledge because their predicate is merely a repetition of their subject. But such statements can often seem earthshaking because we sometimes have failed to take on board the reality named in the first proposition. We do not quite believe, for example, that the escalating cost of higher education cannot go on as it has because, well, because it has gone on just fine until now.

It was the law professor (and prominent internet commentator) Glenn Reynolds who first popularized the phrase “higher education bubble.” Drawing on Stein’s Law, Reynolds argued that the market for higher education, like the housing market before it, is on an unsustainable, inflationary path. “Bubbles form when too many people expect values to go up forever,” he observes. “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.”

Everywhere one turns, it seems, there are illustrations of Reynolds’s point. Item: last month The Wall Street Journal ran a piece under the title “Who Can Still Afford State U?” It used to be that state institutions were relative economic bargains, especially for in-state students. That’s increasingly not the case. The story begins by contrasting the cost of the University of Colorado Boulder in the 1980s—$4,000, $8,500 in today’s dollars—with the tab today: $30,000, a typical case. What’s happened, the story continues, is that state legislatures have trimmed their investment in higher education as other fiscal demands—notably, various welfare commitments, prisons, and public pension obligations—have won out in the competition for scarce dollars.

There is also the familiar story of administrative bloat and gold-plated amenities. A number of factors have helped to fuel the soaring cost of public colleges. Administrative costs have soared nationwide, and many administrators have secured big pay increases—including some at CU-Boulder, in 2011. Teaching loads have declined for tenured faculty at many schools, adding to costs. Between 2001 and 2011, according to the Department of Education, the number of managers at U.S. colleges and universities grew 50 percent faster than the number of instructors. What’s more, schools have spent liberally on fancier dorms, dining halls, and gyms to compete for students.

A similar situation prevails at private universities, only the numbers are even more dramatic. The total ticket per annum at many top-tier institutions now starts with a six, as in $60,000-plus. What can’t go on forever, won’t. The average student leaves college with $27,000 in debt. For many, the figure is $100,000 or more. That can’t go on. Ergo, it won’t go on. Wildly escalating costs (well above the cost-of-living index) in an age of stagnant growth and diminishing resources is simply unsustainable.

But the financial reality of higher education is merely the tip (albeit a painfully sharp tip) of the proverbial iceberg. An even larger engine of change is that extraordinary but common-as-dirt reality that we see all around us but whose power we underestimate because it has become part of the taken-for-granted furniture of our lives. We mean the Internet. Glenn Reynolds is right: the future of higher education belongs overwhelmingly not to dreaming spires and ivied halls but to online emporia and streaming, interactive video. Writing in the current issue of The American Interest, Nathan Harden puts it dramatically but not hyperbolically: “The End of the University As We Know It.” In the space of a few decades, Harden writes, “half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist.”

The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students. . . . The live lecture will be replaced by streaming video. The administration of exams and exchange of coursework over the Internet will become the norm. The push and pull of academic exchange will take place mainly in interactive online spaces, occupied by a new generation of tablet-toting, hyper-connected youth who already spend much of their lives online. Universities will extend their reach to students around the world, unbounded by geography or even by time zones. All of this will be on offer, too, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college education.

Bold prognostications. What makes Nathan Harden think he is right? This basic economic reality: “If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before. People will not continue to pay tens of thousands of dollars for what technology allows them to get for free.”

Mr. Harden acknowledges that a liberal arts education is not simply a matter of imbibing information. Information is not synonymous with knowledge, let alone wisdom, which is the ultimate end of the Arnoldian view of education. Granted that important point, we nonetheless suspect that Nathan Harden is correct: The economic realities heralded by the technological revolution fueled by the Internet are irresistible.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? We do not profess to know. Time will tell. We suspect that the answer to both parts of the question will be “yes”—that is, there will be both gains and losses. But for now the chief reality to acknowledge is the fundamental change that is nigh. “The most important part of the college bubble story,” Harden argues, “concerns the impending financial collapse of numerous private colleges and universities and the likely shrinkage of many public ones. And when that bubble bursts, it will end a system of higher education that, for all of its history, has been steeped in a culture of exclusivity. Then we’ll see the birth of something entirely new as we accept one central and unavoidable fact: The college classroom is about to go virtual.”

In recent years, both Harvard and MIT have invested heavily in a free, on-line initiative dubbed “edX” which offers “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) to anyone with an Internet connection and the requisite curiosity. Such novelties are sprouting up everywhere, and Harden is probably correct that they are “are poised to forever change the way students learn and universities teach.”

There will be winners as well as losers when these changes take hold. Among the winners will be those colleges and universities that have effectively embraced the new technologies. Among the losers will be thousands of Harvard wannabes with boundless pretensions, heavy investment in the residential college experience, and a sweet tooth for all the latest “transgressive” politicized nonsense that has made so many college campuses contemptible intellectual and moral swamps.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to the changes on the horizon is the entrenched nature of the educational establishment: the college presidents with their $1 million plus salaries and bloated administrative staffs, the whole system of tenure which has turned out to be as much a recipe for intellectual conformity as it is a fiscal nightmare. Those who have diagnosed a “bubble” in higher education are right. Change is coming, coming fast, and it is not going to be easy for those indentured to this outmoded, unsustainable model. Doubtless there will be important losses. There is something deeply entrancing, if also financially extravagant, about the ideal residential college experience, even if the reality seldom lives up to the advertisement. Still, Harden has a point: “if our goal is educating as many students as possible, as well as possible, as affordably as possible, then the end of the university as we know it is nothing to fear. Indeed, it’s something to celebrate.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 5, on page 1
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