The End of College?

New America's Kevin Carey answers questions about his new book, The End of College, which looks to the past in charting a possible future for higher education.

March 23, 2015

A growing number of books about higher education's ills have hit the market in recent years. But few have drummed up the attention, both positive and negative, that Kevin Carey's has received.

Carey directs the education policy program at New America, a Washington-based think tank. His book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, came out earlier this month. 

The End of College takes the long view in diagnosing a higher education business model that Carey says is desperately flawed. He goes back centuries to describe how colleges developed scattered and disjointed missions. Carey also looks forward, to how information technology could help birth a more affordable and meritocratic form of higher education.

His book has generated loads of coverage in the news media, including a somewhat positive review in The Washington Post by Janet Napolitano, the University of California system's president. And several of Inside Higher Ed's bloggers have been critical about his assertions. We sent some questions about the book to Carey via email. The exchange is below.

Q. The book's indictment of the current higher education business model is bolstered by a university provost's prediction that only 15 to 50 American colleges will survive the coming disruption. Do you agree with that outlook?

A. No, I think that's an extreme view. Colleges are deeply embedded in our culture and economy. Historically, they have been among the most resilient of all human institutions. Many have troves of educational resources that can be used to adapt and thrive in the coming transition to technology-enabled education. Some will manage that journey successfully, others won't. I do believe that the number of colleges that go under will be much larger over the next 30 years than in the previous 30, and that those that survive will need to change their organizational models fundamentally. That's what I mean by "The End of College" -- the end of colleges as we've known them for roughly the last 140 years.

Plus, I imagine the S.E.C. will keep going if only for the football, so that's 14 universities right there.

Q. You acknowledge the powerful signal that brands like M.I.T. or Harvard send. How can new institutions like Minerva University or the University of Everywhere compete with such established players, or even public universities, many of which are deeply resonant brands in their own backyards?

A. Minerva's theory of this is pretty straightforward. First, it can establish admissions criteria that are just as stringent as Harvard and M.I.T. -- the elite college admissions process isn't exactly a secret. The company says that some of its first class of students turned down Ivy League offers to attend. Second, it can establish curricular standards that are much more stringent than the typical elite school, where you're pretty much guaranteed to graduate unless you commit a felony or drop out to found a software company. The secret weapon for new institutions seeking legitimacy in the market will be evidence of student learning, which is almost totally absent from traditional college degrees.

Q. Some critics argue that your book neglects the vast bulk of average or low-performing students by focusing on how an "unbundled" college experience could benefit outlier academic stars. Would the University of Everywhere be good for nonprodigies? If so, how?

A. The word "unbundle" only appears twice in the book, and in the second instance it is immediately followed by the word "reassemble." The idea of an atomized, postinstitutional higher education is really not the framework I've employed. 

Some critics have focused on the narrative device of my journey through an edX genetics course. I make no claims of representing anyone other than myself in that respect. I'm a college graduate with no experience in or particular aptitude for science, and the course worked for me. Take that as you will. The important thing isn't that I took the course -- it's that tens of thousands of other people took the course, representing almost every dimension of diversity imaginable. And that M.I.T. was able to almost perfectly replicate the course it requires its own students to take and provide it online at zero marginal cost. That strikes me as a pretty amazing fact in terms of what's already possible, today.

Will some people need different levels of support to succeed in a demanding classes? Of course they will. That's why the future contemplated in the book explicitly involves peers, mentors and support. The book says that purely online learning "isn't the ideal learning environment for many, and it's simply untenable for some." It says, "The future of higher education is not one in which everyone sits by herself in her pajamas, pallid and goggle-eyed, being taught by a machine. Indeed, many people -- particularly those who we now think of as college age -- will live and learn together under the auspices of organizations specifically and solely dedicated to their education."

One might conclude from some criticism that my attitude toward nonprodigies is "Let them eat MOOCs." I think that's a misreading of what the book clearly says.

Q. The book makes a strong case for how a democratized, no-frills form of online-enhanced higher education could reduce costs and increase student access. But a substantial number of students and their families want amenities -- libraries, campus greens and even lazy rivers -- and are willing and able to pay for them. Why would that change, even if the stripped-down version became widely available? And why aren't existing options like Western Governors University more popular?

A. Consumer demand isn't independent of signaling and supply. When I was choosing a college in the late 1980s, nobody said they wanted a lazy river. Why? Because there weren't any lazy rivers. Nobody thought to ask for a dorm suite with hotel-like amenities, because there weren't any of those either (at least not at public universities). In the way they decide to market themselves, colleges teach naïve students what to desire. It may be a kind of collective action problem, but it's not an excuse. I think I'm on safe ground in assuming that people in their late teens and early 20s who aren't in college don't normally choose to spend huge amounts of money on memberships in Olympic-caliber gymnasiums.

Q. Likewise, wealthy Americans enjoy plenty of influence with the gatekeepers of higher education. Will they fight changes that bring on the more meritocratic form of college you predict, where gaming the admissions system and coasting with a "gentleman's C" are no longer possible? Do the powerful really want better measures of what their offspring do or don't learn in college?

A. The higher education system that I criticize confers enormous benefits on the privileged and powerful. As Rick Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation likes to note, the American Revolution "was fought in large measure to rid ourselves of aristocracy and inherited privilege." Yet those ideas and systems continue to corrupt college admissions over two centuries later. More broadly, higher education as we know it today systematically provides more resources to wealthy students with an abundance of cultural capital and fewer resources to first-generation students, low-income students and students of color.

The people who benefit from this unfair system will undoubtedly try to preserve it. But that's the nature of all fights worth having.

Q. As you note, colleges are more resilient and longer lasting than tech companies. And the Googles and Microsofts often manage to compete with open-source disrupters like Mozilla (Chrome and Explorer have more users than Firefox). Isn't it possible that while some incumbent colleges will fail, many others will adapt and absorb the market for online and adaptive learning?

A. I think it's not just possible, it's almost certain in some way. The question is, how many others? And how much will they have to transform themselves in order to survive? They may have the same names, but they won't be the same kinds of organizations. (I'm pretty sure Microsoft isn't going to be making tens of billions of dollars from a near-monopoly share of the market for desktop PC operating systems in 2030.) And of course, this has happened in higher education before. Educationally speaking, the Harvard of 2015 looks substantially like the Harvard of 1915, but almost nothing like the Harvard of 1815. Same buildings, same name, different institution.

Q. You discuss how colleges will need to become more like cathedrals, where students will return throughout their lifetimes to work on the "never-ending project of learning." What might that relationship with alma mater look like for a midcareer worker?

A. I think it might look a lot like that midcareer worker's relationship with his or her organization of faith: a lifelong affinity that involves an ongoing commitment to shared values and ideas about learning, including regular meetings with fellow students in the local community. A commitment of time and money that's not insignificant, but not so great that it's incompatible with having a job and a family. I think that would be a better relationship than one based on youthful nostalgia, tribal loyalty, exploitative semiprofessional sports franchises and periodic begging for money, which is what we have today.

Q. The book is nuanced, complex and features an impressive amount of research. But some of your framing, quotes in interviews and published excerpts have had a less sober tone -- like the apocalyptic title. Why? And doesn't that increase the risk of misinterpretation by careless readers, similar to your description of how MOOC hype helped influence the University of Virginia's board to fire its president?

A. The working title of the book was Higher Education Is Likely to Change Somewhat in the Future, Although Exactly How Is Not Yet Clear, but my publisher felt that might not reach the same audience. Plus it was hard to fit on the cover in the font we liked.

Seriously, though: I genuinely believe that major changes are coming in the next generation, of a kind and magnitude that exceed the expectations of almost everyone currently employed by a traditional college or university. I also believe that the chronic neglect of undergraduate education is morally unsupportable and a detriment to society. I've been in too many meetings in my career where, after the doors are closed, higher education professors and administrators readily admit that the system all but obligates professors to neglect teaching in favor of research, and that colleges don't systematically concern themselves with the quality of the teaching and learning they provide in exchange for large amounts of money. Nobody is ever embarrassed to say this. It's socially acceptable -- even required, in a way, like insider knowledge that signals membership in a club. This makes me angry. Some of the language in the book reflects that feeling.

Writing defensively to ward off careless misinterpretation is a mug's game. Careful readers have by and large responded positively to the book, even if they don't agree with all of its predictions and conclusions. As a writer, that's all you can hope for.

Q. Your book offers an intriguing alternative to traditional higher education. Yet some champions of "reform" are more interested in cutting support for colleges, including ones that serve low-income students. Do you worry about providing intellectual cover for people who are primarily interested in spending less, not finding new ways for more access?

A. I do worry about that. I think it's a genuine concern. The last thing I want is for someone like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to justify arbitrary and damaging cuts to public higher education with a thoughtless appeal to technology. I've supported robust and equitable public funding for education for my entire career. At the same time, we can't put the conversation about using technology to build more effective and efficient higher education organizations on hold until the American political economy somehow heals itself.

In the long run, the case for higher education as a public good will be stronger if higher education organizations make the best possible use of public dollars, in a way that's strongly aligned with the average citizen's intense desire to provide an affordable, high quality learning experience for his or her children. Information technology will undoubtedly be an important part of achieving that goal.


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