2012 June 17 Sunday
Huge Higher Education Shake-Out Coming?

Sebastian Thrun showed in a computer science course at Stanford that providing education online can be vastly cheaper.

In the end, there were 160,000 people signed up, from every country in the world, he says, except North Korea. Rather than tape boring lectures, the professors asked students to solve problems and then the next course video would discuss solutions. Mr. Thrun broke the rules again. Twenty-three thousand people finished the course. Of his 200 Stanford students, 30 attended lectures and the other 170 took it online. The top 410 performers on exams were online students. The first Stanford student was No. 411.

Mr. Thrun's cost was basically $1 per student per class. That's on the order of 1,000 times less per pupil than for a K-12 or a college educationóway more than the rule of thumb in Silicon Valley that you need a 10 times cost advantage to drive change.

This will take off because the stories of crushing college debts and poor job prospects keep spreading around. Why learn useless junk at high expensive? Better to learn useless junk at low expense or really valuable stuff at low expense. Once people get out into the workforce and discover their first attempt at college education was a waste of time that left them deeply in debt they are going to be really open to learning valuable stuff at much lower cost.

Why not watch online courses and take online tests? Granted, you won't be able to do question and answer sessions. But if Q&A sessions get recorded and properly indexed you'll be able to search thru and find questions asked that are similar to your own questions. Odds are your questions won't be unique.

Another thing to note here: Smart people with technical skills will face more competition. In the past if you didn't figure out you ought to take a more technical educational track then by age 22 you were often left without the opportunity to wise up and change course. But with online courses someone who hits their late 20s and finally clues in on what's valuable in the job market will have a much easier time going after skills that matter.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2012 June 17 09:00 PM  Education Online

Good schools will be fine said at June 18, 2012 10:28 AM:

Higher ed may face some shake up, but much of it will stay intact. Outside of the STEM majors, the point of college is an IQ/Social skills certification. An English major from Stanford with good grades and a couple of internships likely will get a job because employers will recognize that he is a bright, trainable, reasonably social person. Now, as you move down the ladder of schools, that becomes less and less true. A University of Kansas English major has a chance for a job but it's much less guaranteed. A Nowhere State English major likely is screwed.

If I had to take a guess, the schools that will take a major hit down the road will be middle and lower tier private schools - and to a lesser degree, lower tier public schools. Nobody is going to shell out $30,000 to $40,000 a year (assuming a bit of financial aid) to send their kid to a school that no one outside of that state has heard of, such as Wells College or St. Norbert College. Heck, even more middle tier private schools, like Muhlenberg College or Hampton-Sydney College, could see their enrollment drop. Given the odds of a kid going to graduate school, a parent would be stupid to pay for a private college that wasn't ranked in the top 10 or 20 liberal arts colleges. Even then, I might not do it. (I also live in Virginia where the public universities are pretty damn good.)

But returning to your point, online certification doesn't fit every type of employer need. They also need sales people, business managers, HR, etc. Those are STEM jobs, but they do require brains and social skills. College does a good job of uncovering those people.

WG said at June 20, 2012 2:31 PM:

One of the arguments put forward by the "100 reasons NOT to go to grad school" blog is that the fragile state of higher education makes it increasingly risky to bet on a career in higher education (which is what going to grad school entails in most disciplines):

Changes that may in the long run be of great benefit to students (including the social acceptance of online education) will likely be devastating to those whose employment depends on the existing model of higher education. Change will affect those who work in the classroom, but also those who work everywhere else on the traditional college campus.

The elite colleges will probably be fine, but they represent a tiny share of college students and college employees.

Randall Parker said at July 5, 2012 9:56 AM:


I agree. It seems like a bad idea to invest in a Ph.D. when the demand for college profs is going to drop. I can only see justifiying a Ph.D. in a field where the commercial world will put a high value on your skills. So, for example, an advanced degree in a computer science specialty such as machine learning might make sense.

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