Law in the Internet Society

Why Universities May Be Doomed

-- By OmarHaroun - 26 Nov 2011

Are Universities Doomed?

This essay will discuss my views on why universities may be doomed and why technology will (hopefully) be able to replace most of the benefits of a university education at a fraction of the cost.

My Skepticism & Bias

With soaring tuition costs and an increased emphasis towards research/publications and away from teaching, the value of a university degree increasingly seems questionable to me. I’m saying this from the point of view of a student who is about to graduate with over two hundred thousand dollars in debt and who is choosing a career path after graduation, which offers very little monetary compensation.

Although a minority of courses successfully improve students’ critical thinking, I have found that the vast majority end up teaching a largely unhelpful set of facts or arguments, which fail to provide practical value and which do not really improve or change one’s way of thinking about the world.

The Two Main Theories in Education Economics

The economic literature on education reveals two views on education: the ‘signaling’ theory and the ‘human capital’ theory. The signaling theory purports that a degree from a university is merely a ‘signal’ that a person is smart, hard working, etc. and that the education itself provides little to no value for a person. The reason to get a university degree under this theory is that, in a world of imperfect information, one needs such a signal to convey that he or she is smart, successful, hard-working, reliable, etc. In other words, if I am an employer and I’m sifting through thousands of job applications, seeing that somebody graduated from Columbia Law School is a shortcut way for me to assume that this person is smart, hard-working, reliable (at least reliable enough to finish law school), etc. Under the signaling theory my attending Columbia Law School did not enhance my skills or make me any smarter, more hard-working etc. than I would have been if I had done something else for three years. However, if I had spent the same three years reading and writing books in my basement, my potential employer would have no way to ‘quickly’ assess my skill set from my resume in the way that he can if I go to Columbia Law School.

The “human capital” theory, in contrast, views education and a university degree as something which actually enhances one’s skill set, critical thinking, knowledge, etc. In other words, even if a person could end up with the same job in 5 years (with or without their degree), it would be better to get the degree since he or she will be that much smarter, sharper, more mature, etc. The reason to get a degree, then, under the human capital theory, is to actually improve one’s ‘human capital’ or set of skills.

Putting aside the flawed underlying assumptions of this debate, and operating under this paradigm for a moment, it’s interesting to analyze whether technology is capable of providing a ‘signal’ and/or and a way to enhance one’s ‘human capital’.

Technology and Open Source Information Enhances Human Capital

Technology has enabled people to discover and share information with millions of people at virtually no cost. This TWiki is just one example; there are thousands of other open source projects (available for free online) that contain enough “educational” materials to teach a person about virtually anything they would want to learn about. I can honestly say that as a Columbia Law Student I have probably learned more and enhanced my ‘human capital’ more from information online (via open source projects) than I have in the classroom.

The Missing Piece: Can Technology Enable a “Signaling” Effect?

I’ve now argued that technology, by enabling free information, has been able to enhance human capital in a way that was previously only possible by a university education. Even at universities, most students today learn more from online sources than they do in the classroom – though they pay thousands of dollars to be able to sit in these classrooms. One obvious reason why the number of university applicants is rising despite the fact that most educational information is available online is that, at least to some extent, the “signaling theory’ has merit, and that people are lining up at the top universities so that they earn that powerful ‘degree’ which signals to the world (and future employers) how smart they are.

I’ll end this essay by asking the reader whether you think technology is capable of also providing the ‘signaling’ aspect of a university education the way that it has proven itself to provide the ‘human capital’ aspect. In my view, as a social entrepreneur it is; many of the entrepreneurs I know that elicit the most respect are the ones who maintain an interesting blog, regularly contribute to open source projects, and make it clear to the online world through a variety of ‘signals’ that they are smart, hard-working, etc.

It is my hope that eventually as information becomes more and more available the value of a university degree will diminish, and people will realize that their time is better spent actually learning things of value and contributing their knowledge online rather than joining the rat race of people spending thousands of dollars on an education which only ends up hurting them in the end.

I don't understand why the premise is that universities or forms of higher education are either replaced or not replaced. I would have thought that the recognition is that there are significant parts of the educational project that have zero marginal cost and scale very well, and other parts that have very high marginal cost and scale poorly. The latter are collectively called "teaching," or in Max Weber's highly relevant analysis, "pedagogy." In the changes triggered by the zero marginal cost availability of the materials of curriculum, educational publishers are more endangered than universities, as they well know. A university can become a supplier of free curriculum, as in the case of MIT Open Courseware, which will be professionally taught in other universities, as in West Bengal. That does nothing to reduce the price the originating university can charge for its own theater seats, and in fact it raises the profile of MIT teaching for many tends of millions more potential customers around the world.

What seems likely, then, is that universities will adapt to make the quality of their teaching—which is the part of pedagogy which scales poorly and for which relatively high prices can always be charged if the customer believes the quality of the service to be superior—primary. As you may have noticed, the form of teaching that is least available is the kind that helps people to think more creatively, which is not by any means the same as the form of teaching that helps people to memorize material temporarily with which to pass examinations.

But why universities should fail is hard for me to see. They are institutions whose collective history now extends back almost a millennium, in their present Western form alone, and they have adapted to economic shifts as profound as those now happening, including the adoption of printed books and the immense industrialization of science. They are both primary producers of free curriculum and near-exclusive centers of the most sophisticated pedagogy. Their brands are among the strongest in the global economy. Because they have long functioned as the gatekeepers for intellectual, political and social elites on national and then global scale, they are unusually strongly embedded in governmental power structures. Obviously they are going to respond comprehensively to major changes in their technological environments and resource ecology. But how could realistic analysis proceed on the assumption of the university's irrelevance?

Well, it turns out, on the basis of what you label as skepticism and bias. The skepticism seems to be based on a judgment of the material worth of your investment in degrees, which—to the extent that there's anything useful about providing facts to offset bias—no data confirms. That a law degree pays for itself over a lifetime is not an easy proposition to find evidence against, let alone disprove. So concluding that your education "only winds up hurting [you] in the end" is a demonstration that the bias has become impervious to factual assessment.

Your objection to your own education seems to be that only "a minority" of courses changed your way of thinking about the world (perhaps a small minority, as you say that the other fraction is a "vast majority"). Is the expectation that teaching would only be worth paying for if all courses changed one's way of thinking about the world? I consider myself to have been well taught, pretty much throughout my schooling. I was particularly well taught in college, but I had also some very exceptional teachers in graduate school and in law school. Surely, however, only a small minority, a very small minority, in fact I would say, three or four out of nearly a hundred, had the transformative effect on my intellectual development that you describe.

So I can't see where either the skepticism or the bias are actually located, in the (pardon my expression) real world. Neither the economic burden nor the description of the intellectual experience self-reported seem to me to justify the bitterness. I will grant you, without any further discussion, that law school is expensive and few teachers are adequately involved with their students' actual learning process. The psychological consequences of exposure to those realities may be more familiar to me than they are even to you, because what I lose in present participation in those feelings I gain from some quite extensive repeated exposure. Certainly they could include this sort of general rejection of the entire enterprise.

But unless you are actually abandoning it, which you are of course entirely free to do, it seems clear that you ought to give it your best effort. Which, in this case, probably involves finding a way to harness your skepticism and reduce your bias, by paying careful attention to facts and by scrutinizing carefully each of your propositions as you build on them.

Omar, thanks for this interesting essay. I think you've done a great job synthesizing the debate and specifying some important variables. I agree that schools like CLS have at least two separate functions: 1) education, 2) certification. I think, as you indicate, these functions are logically independent. In fact, there are many strong reasons to think that forcing teachers to perform both functions creates a conflict of interest and undermines the education function. There are also many conceptual problems with the certification systems used as CLS (as Eben has pointed out in his statement on grading).

I think the idea has become almost a truism now that with technology, we can do a lot of education for ourselves (though Eben is right to point out that there are some teaching functions, like one on one mentoring and small group interactions, that do not scale). The inevitable counter to these arguments, as you point out, is that universities perform a signalling, certification function. I think you make a great point that technology can provide a substitute in this domain as well, if creatively applied. That's an important point and one that I haven't seen made in these types of discussions.

I would agree with Eben that the point about the fate of universities as institutions is independent from your points about the educational and signalling uses of technology. I don't think that you need to establish that universities are doomed to make your points here. It can be simultaneously be true that universities persist as institutions (though perhaps changed in some ways), and that technology provides an alternative route to education and certification. It might also be true that creative use of technology can increase the amount of value that a person inside a university gets out of her time inside the university.

-- DevinMcDougall - 28 Nov 2011

Omar -- what about the lab aspect? In the counterfactual where you were working over the last few years, would you have had the time or resources to do what you are doing now?

-- AlexeySokolin - 29 Nov 2011

Something to maybe look at is the Khan Academy model: Lectures are delivered online and students master the knowledge in that format. Then, the function of the in-person classroom experience is to focus on things like discussion, group-work, problem solving -- generally, the application of the knowledge.

-- BahradSokhansanj - 29 Nov 2011

@Eben, you make several good points. My title was a bit dramatic and while I agree that universities are too engrained in societal power structures to ever really "be doomed," I do think that examples like the MIT Open Courseware project demonstrate that people can learn a whole lot without having to pay for a university degree. It will be interesting to see whether your prediction, that universities will be forced to focus on their competitive advantage -- pedagogy -- will play out. I hope you are right, but I worry that if (as you agree) most university professors are increasingly less focused on teaching, informed students may increasingly turn to less costly alternatives for their education, and question whether paying SO MUCH money is worth the slightly higher quality of in-person teaching (as opposed to a video with the same lecture online). One thing the university degree uniquely has over other 'online educational forms' is the certification aspect, but even this is something that I think can be replicated by less-costly forms of technology-driven education. I think my bitterness mainly comes from the fact that in today's society many people (often young and not fully informed) are under the impression that the only way to achieve knowledge and success is to pay (and borrow) hundreds of thousands of dollars for a university degree, when, in reality, one can get most of the same benefits at a fraction of the cost with technology. I also wonder if some of the best teachers, who actually care about teaching their students, are the same ones who would be happy to teach without forcing their students to pay all this money for a degree. I love models like General Assembly (read this for more), which I hope will force universities to lower their tuition costs. I did not mean to sound as though I hope universities themselves will disappear.

Commenting on comments is not revision. If you mean to show any further effort or commitment and any improvement with respect to this piece, you need to revise it soon.

@Devin, thanks. I think I overstated the extent to which universities must fail in order for technology to succeed, and you raise a great point about how technology, if used properly, can increase the value for university students.

@Alexey, I agree that being a student gives you plenty of time and resources to do creative things (like a social venture in my case), but I'm not sure that justifies the tuition costs.

@Bahrad, that sounds fascinating. Exactly the sort of 'creative use of technology' that @Devin is alluding to. I hope all universities move in this direction, and find a way to lower the tuition costs.


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r8 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:17 - IanSullivan
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