Education is a public good.
Those five simple words should stand at the center of all conversations about higher education; participants in such conversations should recite them on a regular basis. Instead, I hear the drumbeat language of “disruption” — new models of higher education will do to “legacy” colleges and universities what the steamboat did to the sailing vessel, or more recently, what Amazon did to Borders. The disruption gurus see a new business model on the horizon, approaching fast and preparing to vanquish all postsecondary institutions that do not embrace a particular kind of innovation. Those institutions will decline because they cannot compete.
The disruptive steamroller now bearing down on higher education is a product strategy known as “unbundling.” Just as iTunes has driven the album out of the market by enabling consumers to purchase their music one song at a time, students are increasingly able to purchase their degrees, one or two courses at a time, from different providers. “Like steam,” proclaims  one Harvard Business School professor together with the executive director of an “Institute for Disruptive Innovation,” “online education is a disruptive innovation — one that introduces more convenient and affordable products or services that over time transform sectors.”
The argument goes something like this. Skyrocketing tuitions have put college out of the reach of millions of Americans (not to mention millions more around the world with access to a computer but not a campus). In a market economy, when a product becomes too expensive for consumers, innovators who can satisfy demand more efficiently will drive existing businesses to the margins — in this case, to the kind of luxury market that prefers a CD to an MP3. Here, the avatars of disruption don’t completely agree: some, like the keynote speaker at the recent Ithaka Sustainable Scholarship Conference, readily admit that “traditional” institutions generally provide a superior education, given the virtues of face-to-face interaction and the multidimensionality of student life; others insist that consumers of such educational Cadillacs are mere chumps, spending thousands of dollars on prestige, along with a “student life” consisting mostly of parties that would be more cheaply and safely held at home.
Given these excessive costs — generally attributed to inefficiency, salaries paid to professors more interested in research than in teaching, and a broken business model that federal financial aid subsidies keep insulated from market forces — consumers will increasingly choose cheaper degrees that do a better job of preparing them for the workplace. These new degrees use technology more efficiently, reward competence over time in a classroom, and liberate students to take courses where they are available, rather than suffer from the corporeal implications of how many bodies can fit into a single classroom, or how often a given course appears on the schedule. Statistics 101 is full at your university? No big deal; just take the MOOC and get credit in the same way your university gave credit for that Advanced Placement course you took in high school.
Liberated from such luxuries as student counseling (academic and otherwise), full-time faculty, sports, dormitories (fancy and otherwise), meadows and plazas, orchestras, offices of community relations that actually provide services rather than public relations, subsidized clinics, and various other luxuries unnecessary to a student’s first job (as opposed to a career), the new-model colleges can indeed do it cheaper. And this is not a bad thing: millions of people across the planet hunger for knowledge and ought to have the access that online education can provide.
It is a grim reality of many large (mostly public) universities that students unable to get a spot in required courses cannot graduate in four, even five years.
The history major who can’t take the entry-level requirement until junior year has a problem that “unbundling” can solve, whether through a MOOC or some other online venue. I would love to see the American Historical Association participate in any innovation able to address this problem. I also appreciate how a degree earned through a set of courses taken at various places, online and otherwise, makes good sense to people unable or unwilling to pay for a “traditional” college education. Those of us who consider humanities and social science essential to career preparation should dedicate ourselves to ensuring that such degrees include high-quality history education, provided by professionals who are properly compensated for their time and expertise. We should be similarly committed to widening access to higher education of all kinds, and to the kinds of lifelong learning that can be facilitated by distance educational resources.
But education is not music. I don’t care whether everyone in my city is willing to sacrifice sound quality, and the artistry involved in constructing the content of a CD, for the convenience and cost of an MP3. Nor do I care if “legacy” airlines are pushed aside by the disruptive innovations of creative entrepreneurs. The big corporations, analogous to 19th-century shipping magnates, can fall victim to “disruption” and we will have traded very little for new efficiencies. The same cannot be said for education, which is not merely a consumer purchase but a public good. Part of the reason for a seemingly failing financial model in public postsecondary education is found not on the cost side, but rather in a decline in public funding. At non-flagship public universities and community colleges, the cost per student (as opposed to what students actually pay) is generally not increasing. Students cannot get into courses in part because public colleges and universities do not have adequate public funds. It is incumbent on us to make a better argument for such funding, but we should not assume that the market can do the job better. More efficiently, maybe. But not better.
Moreover, we will all lose if we allow markets to determine the institutional framework of higher education. The self-described disruptors claim to be doing what scholars do: competing in a marketplace of ideas, with the same imperative to think outside the box, explore new models, and reward creativity. But, in my field, history, we know that the best new scholarship builds upon the old, rather than casting it to the scrap heap. We learn from our predecessors; they spare us the inefficiency of having to reinvent the wheel. We are not out to destroy them in the way of the business world to which the disruptors look for models of change.
Let us make room, then, for the innovations that broaden access, while participating in the conversations that will shape and deploy those innovations. Markets ought not be considered the arbiters of quality education. To allocate public resources based on how much an education costs, and whether it can provide minimal competencies, is a strategy to impoverish public culture. Education is not just a tool for individual advancement; it is also a public instrument to promote democratic citizenship. The system works better for all of us if more people can recognize a logical fallacy, read a data table, understand the text and context of the Constitution, and decipher debates surrounding the causes of the Great Depression. An unbundled degree offers a better education compared to no degree at all (something to be taken seriously), but it is a narrow and often isolated experience compared to the liberal education that is available in the hundreds of institutions across the nation that offer curriculums, rather than courses.
We need to determine what, precisely, is being disrupted by new business models, ensuring that as we transform higher education with digital tools, we also conserve essential elements of the best system of higher education in the world, measured by the number of people from around the globe who either flock to our institutions or try to replicate them back home (often with strong public backing), having grasped the fact that education, after all, is a public good.
Many of the elements we treasure in a “traditional” education are somewhat intangible, or difficult to explain without sounding either elitist or archaic, but they are benefits nonetheless, and public funds should subsidize the financial aid necessary to keep them accessible to those determined to reap their benefits but unable to afford their cost. I encourage our colleagues to figure out how to participate in and adapt new forms of instruction. But I also challenge the entrepreneurs who profit from those new forms to join American traditions of philanthropic citizenship and support the infrastructure of “bricks and mortar” education for those who desire it — not only those who can afford it.
James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association.