Buffeted by increasing costs, shrinking public subsidies, soaring student debt and growing public skepticism, American colleges are approaching a tipping point.
More than 4,000 colleges and universities are scattered across the country, and experts agree that — with the exception of elite, well-endowed research universities — few will remain unchanged in 30 years. Some will close, others might merge, and leaner models likely will emerge to meet public demand.
“I think all change is incremental, but what’s different about the period we’re in is there are so many forces out there that the cumulative effect of those forces will produce big changes,” said Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, said colleges and universities will emphasize more online offerings as they reshape to survive.
Bill Sams, a Silicon Valley executive who became associate provost at The Ohio State University, said extensive change is inevitable. Increasing costs have many families questioning the value of higher education and college leaders scrambling to make operations more efficient.
“These folks, in my view, are like the people on the Titanic rearranging the deck chairs. The ship is sinking. They can’t maintain the cost structure or their inefficiencies,” said Sams.
Schools operating on slim margins could fall prey to upstarts using data to offer free or low-cost programs.
Some schools have started fashioning templates for the future.
In January, the Georgia Institute of Technology, a top engineering school, partnered with AT&T and Udacity to offer a low-cost online master’s degree in computer science. About 400 students enrolled, and Charles Isbell Jr., senior associate dean of Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, expects 1,000 students in the program by fall.
The bar for admission and the course work are the same as the campus program, but the online program’s $6,600 tuition bill is significantly less than the $28,000 required for classes on the Atlanta campus.
“On campus, we accept about 10 percent of the applicants, but easily 50 to 70 percent of them are qualified,” Isbell said. “If we make it available to everyone whom we believe will succeed, it’s a huge change in the way we think about things.”
Sams said colleges and universities could look to the example set by former hedge fund analyst Sal Khan, who used technology and learning science to start Khan Academy’s free YouTube tutorials for K-12 students. Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are backing Khan. The idea attracted millions of students worldwide.
Skeptics note that colleges for years have offered online courses with little reduction in tuition. And free Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs, have yet to become much more than a public library.
Still, MOOCs forced universities to reconsider the way they provide content, said economist Eric Hanushek, who studies higher education at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
“I think even though students are signed up for courses, a lot of them are taking the course online and not spending much time in class,” he said. “You sort of wonder what is happening when they’re paying the rates of Carnegie Mellon and Stanford and never going to class.”
In 2007-08, the National Center for Education Statistics found that 20.4 percent of the nation’s college students took at least one course online. Almost 4 percent said they took all classes online.
Nearly two decades ago, the governors of 19 states established Western Governors University, an online school that bases credit on students’ mastery of concepts rather than hours spent in classes. The accredited nonprofit university uses learning science software developed by Carnegie Mellon University researchers. Its 45,000 students in 50 states pay a flat fee of $6,000 a year.
Erica Cole, 39, a mother of three in Pike County, tried to complete her degree at several online and traditional schools before she stumbled on Western Governors.
“With other online colleges … you get an online forum, ask questions, answer questions, submit a paper and email the teacher, if you need to,” Cole said. “But at Western Governors, they start you out with a mentor. … You have a relationship with someone who is holding you accountable. Then you have course mentors, the ones who hold online interactive presentations, and you can sit in, and they will guide you to help you with the course.”
Cole is pursuing her master’s degree with Western Governors.
University President Robert Mendenhall said the school is a self-sustaining model that five more states have joined.
“They don’t have to be like us, but we need a lot of other institutions with affordable, flexible models,” he said. “Degrees don’t have to cost $30,000 a year and take five years to complete.”
Marsha Lovett, a Carnegie Mellon professor who directs the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, helped develop programs for Western Governors in conjunction with Acrobatiq, a CMU spinoff that tapped decades of data on learning science to build its courseware.
“These courses are designed to be highly interactive. It is about students learning by doing and getting feedback that is tailored to their responses,” she said. “The software can adapt to learning needs, either by making recommendations, offering personal feedback or building it into the course work.”
Some question whether the learning model can reach students at the margins of higher education, but it has proved effective in K-12 school settings, said CMU professor Justine Cassell, who directs the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
Such programs can help recast higher education if learners’ needs are the center of the equation, Cassell said. She and Lovett are working on the Simon Initiative, a wide-ranging examination of learning science data gathered over decades. They intend to establish standards for learning technology.
“The Internet is the medium, not the message,” Cassell said.
Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or [email protected].