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4 Questions for John Tamny
June 12, 2013 - 9:00pm

John Tamny got a bunch of us thinking and debating with his Forbes OpEd, Online Education Will Be the Next 'Bubble' To Pop, Not Traditional University Learning.

A senior economic adviser to Toreador Research & Trading, and editor of both Forbes Opinions and RealClearMarkets.com (RCM), John approaches higher education issues from a different vantage point than those of us working directly in the industry.

John and I had a great e-mail back-and-forth after I wrote about his Forbes article, and he was gracious enough to agree to further share his thinking with our community via a Q and A:

What follows are my questions and John's answers:

Question 1:  In my blog I take you to task what I perceive as your conflation of "online learning" with MOOCs.  For instance, you write that .."the true educational bubble forming is in the online space".  You actually make a nuanced and sophisticated argument about why prices at selective institutions are so high, and why these prices are not likely to fall.  My critique is that your argument was weakened by the imprecise language you use to talk about the specific case of education at scale, lumping all of online education (which can share the attributes of a personalized and intimate learning experience), with MOOCs.  Would you like to respond to this critique?
 
Answer:

You're correct that I didn't distinguish between the two kinds of online education, but then that wasn't really my purpose.
 
My view is that online AND classroom education are both overrated, but at least education of the classroom variety provides the scarce good coveted by employers ("She went to Dartmouth so she must be smart, is probably a hard worker, and the two will fit well inside our company").  Particularly in a dynamic economy, any information imparted of presumed commercial value (whether classroom or online) is almost by definition dated by virtue of it being taught.
 
Do I think there should be no school?  Not one bit.  But I do think people need to moderate their expectations. Yes.  In my mind we're not a rich country because of our schools, rather we have top schools because we're a rich country.  Parents seek prestige, contacts, mates, and all manner of status things (I see nothing wrong with this by the way) for their own, and school is a way to do just that.
 
But when people say college education or an MBA or a law degree give students the 'tools' necessary to succeed in the wider world, I laugh.  Most any job can be taught (including surgery as we're learning from India), so the idea that we need four years of schooling or more to prepare us for the real world isn't terribly credible.  This isn't to say that I wouldn't send my kids to college.  Yes I would.  I loved the experience.

Question 2:  In your column you question the true value of an expensive undergraduate degree, writing that:  "For the most part college students tune out during their four years on campus; that, or they memorize what’s needed to get As on the tests."  Do you think the same holds true for graduate and professional degrees, particularly at rigorous and highly selective institutions?
 
Answer:

I do. Let's face it, MBA students are not asked about their grades. This isn't to say some students don't study hard, but even those who do are often learning what's needed to pass the test.  Importantly, none of what's learned in business school proves very relevant beyond those walls.
 
On another note, and it's understood that there are always unique exceptions, but one of my best friends (ironically from business school) has a father who for a long time was the world's foremost ear surgeon.  He ranked #3 in his Harvard Medical School class, while #1 in the same class never achieved much acclaim.  But he had a great memory and this served him well for tests.

Question 3:  My daughter's will be starting college in 2015 and 2017.  I have a very personal stake in the larger effort to increase the productivity of higher education.   What do you think that the people like me that work in higher ed should be doing to contribute to increasing the quality while lowering costs and increasing access?    What role do you think that technology should play in efforts to improve productivity in the postsecondary sector?
 
Answer:

This is a tough one because despite my skepticism, I'm a big fan of the college experience.  I really think there's value that comes from four years of meeting new people, growing up, visiting friends from other places, countries, etc.  Probably if I could change anything, and this swims against the generalized tide, is that I would focus curricula even more on liberal arts.
 
Let's face it, if you have a facility for engineering or math, no schooling is going to make you that much better.  And then if you don't, no amount of schooling is going to make you terribly skillful.  But with liberal arts at least there's lots of reading.  I think well read people are more fun to be around, more interesting, and for both, perhaps better in a work environment? My view is that the best class I ever took was in high school: typing.  It changed everything for me.
 
So for me I would again prefer more reading and writing in school, maybe more emphasis on studying abroad.  Anything else can be learned on the job.

Questions 4:  Do you think that U.S. higher ed as an industry is in crisis?   Will we see a similar shake-out as we have witnessed in other information industries, with new players displacing incumbents and a significant number of existing institutions eventually closing their doors?   Will these changes be a good or a bad thing for existing and potentials students, and a society that relies upon an educated and skilled citizenry to be competitive in a global economy?
 
Answer:

I don't think U.S. higher ed is in crisis.  Not at all.  Figure we're in a limp economy yet tuition continues to rise.  What this says is that parents and kids will pay way, way up for the 'right' degree, the right friends, the right access to employers that certain schools can provide.
 
Schumpeterian creative destruction has surely changed how we access news and opinion (you found mine online), and it will continue to work its magic on all manner of industries.  I don't see it happening with education mainly because parents are parents and kids are kids.  Parents will remain ambitious for their offspring such that they'll want to send them off to a big name school with academic or sporting prestige, and then kids want to get away.
 
People ask me my hobbies, and the one I always tell them is that I absolutely love walking college campuses.  There's something so magical about them.  I know this sounds odd coming from someone who thinks college education is overrated, but I spent my whole childhood thinking about where to go to college, had an amazing time visiting schools with my parents, and to this day I seriously enjoy seeing new campuses.
 
Put plainly, I think college education is overrated, but think college itself one of the greatest things a teen can do.  A truly great experience.  There's an amazing, albeit intangible feel that comes with walking onto campus, and this is something that online quite simply cannot offer.  Higher ed's not in trouble because you can't replace the wonders of walking through a university's gates.  Higher ed's not in trouble mainly because it's offering something much greater than education.  

 

 

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