The New Partnerships

Here's what I think will happen. New alliances will be formed to link intellectual and credentialing resources (possibly major universities themselves) with communications and technical resources, and with capital. (Think, for instance, of an alliance of the University of California, the Disney corporation, and one of the Silicon Valley giants or gazelles.) Their objective will be to offer on-line electronic education accessible in the home or workplace at prices that are less than those routinely charged by regional colleges and universities.

The electronic providers probably will start with course offerings at the basic (or even remedial) and the professional (continuing education for in-place workers) levels. They will branch out from there, never trying to encompass the whole curriculum of the contemporary university, but picking out the courses and programs that typically have high enrollment. They will, in short, cherry-pick the curriculum, selectively competing where most of the demand occurs.

Their prices can be lower because their costs will be lower. They will not have the expenses of physical plants, student services, intercollegiate athletics, and the like. They will not be as staff-intensive as the typical university, in which faculty teach only those students who can fit into the classroom or lecture hall. If done carefully, this will be "education for the masses" without being "mass education." The limited examples we have seen thus far indicate that a significant number of students are willing to invest in custom-designed products from consumer-friendly vendors.

The development costs of electronic courses are high, perhaps around $5 million apiece. But the potential volume of consumers is high, too, because these alliances will eschew involvement in the high-cost, low-demand parts of the curriculum that are heavily subsidized in a regular university.

This means that what may be left out is much of the traditional arts and sciences and general education. It won't matter much to the providers or, unfortunately, to their customers that Wordsworth "wander'd lonely as a cloud" or that Yeats built a small cabin at Innisfree. Neither will the study of history, forms of government, or economic theories be compelling. What will matter is knowledge and skills that can be applied immediately in the workplace.

Those who say that "general education" is valued by employers should look at a typical hiring pattern of industry among community college students. Students regularly are hired as soon as they have learned the technical skills the employer wants, and they leave college without either a degree or general education.

What might emerge is a market for technical education that leads directly and immediately to employment, followed by "on-time" and "as-needed" additional education that keeps workers as skilled and knowledgeable as they have to be. "General education" might be postponed until later in life when there is more leisure, for one thing, and more need for the consolations of the arts and letters, for another.

As for the laboratory science courses necessary to a technical education, they may be provided, at least in part, by sophisticated computer simulation techniques that make it possible to do laboratory science without actually being in a laboratory. Alternatively, students may enroll part-time in the local college or university for them, and transfer the credits to the electronic vendor. Again, the electronic vendor avoids the high cost of maintaining fixed assets.

"Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they the shadows of the things that may be, only?" The answer, I think, is that the advent of high-volume, electronic delivery of higher education is inevitable. But many institutions can seize the opportunities available in this new environment if they are agile, creative, and willing to change.

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