Joseph J. Horton / Jun. 21, 2013

Competition Is Rapidly Changing College

Is the traditional college doomed? More and more people think so. Massively open online courses (MOOCs) are threatening to shake up higher education by bringing primarily non-credit courses from college professors to the world at no cost. The California state senate, however, has just passed a bill to encourage its universities to develop MOOCs and other online courses for credit.

Further evidence of rapid change is the recently announced partnership between Georgia Tech and MOOC provider Udacity to offer a master of computer science degree for just $7,000. Once fully implemented, the program will be able to educate up to 10,000 students a year and will have its set-up costs underwritten by AT&T to the tune of $2,000,000. This shows the importance to industry of training students in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Forecasting the future in such tumultuous times is risky, but I believe the demise of the traditional college, even for STEM education, has been exaggerated.

Noteworthy is that this a master’s program rather than a bachelor’s program. Students in this program will have already demonstrated the initiative and self-motivation to succeed. Current MOOCs have an extremely low completion rate. When traditional colleges offer online courses the completion rate is much lower than for classroom-based courses. It takes more self-discipline to complete a course when no one will know if one misses class.

Those who argue that some studies show that students learn more in MOOCs, or online classes, compared to traditional classes, are comparing apples and oranges. They are comparing a group of only highly motivated students (the students who did not drop out) to a group of students with more variation in their motivation. Colleges accept teenagers as freshmen and provide scaffolding to turn those who may lack self-discipline into young adults. If bachelor’s degrees were offered via MOOCs, many students would fall through the cracks and be less successful than if they had the support of a real campus. Those most likely to fall through the cracks would be students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Computer science is a STEM field that does not require lab work. Most STEM fields require lab work which cannot be duplicated online. Mechanical engineers need a machine shop. Biologists need cell cultures. MOOCS are simply not up to the task of being the sole provider to increase the number of graduates in many STEM fields. Yet there are many courses, particularly lower level courses, that can be translated to an online format well. MOOCs will soon provide real competition to traditional colleges.

Some scoff at the notion that MOOCs can become a competitive challenge to traditional colleges. They correctly argue that there is no way MOOCs can do all that colleges do. But MOOCs do not have to replicate the product of traditional colleges to compete. All MOOCs have to do is be perceived as a better value. I am told that a BMW would be a far nicer car than my Ford. However, I did not even consider purchasing a BMW because for my money the Ford was a far better value. If traditional colleges do not adapt, and adapt quickly, they may find that people prefer the lower cost option even if it does not offer all the additional features, no matter how praiseworthy, offered by traditional colleges. There is no doubt that colleges collectively have a pricing issue to address.

I am confident that some traditional colleges will go out of business in the next 10-15 years due to their inability to adapt. The schools that survive will have to do more than address the cost issue. It is impossible for those offering the traditional college experience to compete on price alone. The survivors will figure out what they do better than MOOCs and will do those things better than they do today. The value added will be measured and explained to prospective students and employers.

Stiff competition in higher education is upon us. Families will soon have more educational options with a wider range of prices. The competition will be good for the surviving traditional colleges that will provide far better educations than they do today. Students, their families and industry will be better off as a result. It is a great and exciting time to be in the business of higher education.

Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and a researcher on Positive Youth Development with The Center for Vision & Values.

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