What's the future of higher education? There might be no one better to answer the question than Lawrence Bacow, the former president of Tufts, and Joseph Aoun, the president of Northeastern

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The price of college has been skyrocketing for years — many private schools are closing in on $60,000 a year once you factor in books, mandatory fees, and housing. And online courses are now proliferating. So what will happen to the traditional university? The quad? The professors? And, perhaps most importantly, the students?

Are we living at an inflection point, a time when college is beginning a new phase, though we may not have noticed it happening? Well, no one would know better than the leaders of universities themselves.

Is Traditional Education at Risk?

With so many ways to receive a top-notch education for free — from Coursera to Khan Academy — many are calling the value of a traditional college degree into question. But Lawrence Bacow, the former president of Tufts University, isn’t too worried. He points out that there’s always been a way to get a free education: your public library.

“I could check out exactly the same texts that were being used at great universities around the country,” Bacow points out. “And I could — if I wanted to, if I was diligent enough — I could master the material on my own, and many people did that.”

So if free access to college-level material was going to undermine the value of a degree, Bacow argues, college diplomas would have lost their prestige a long time ago

“I think, personally, that interesting things happen when you confine faculty and students under temperature and pressure for the four years that constitute college,” Bacow says. “Something happens when people are together, and it happens in the classroom, it happens on the campus, and it happens in the workplace.”

The Future of College

But though he sees value in the traditional education model, Bacow agrees that universities have a cost crisis. Instead of seeing digital education tools like Courseraas a competitor that could undercut the value of a college degree, Bacow sees them as potential partners in the quest for higher education efficiency. By integrating technology into the traditional university model, he argues, colleges can continue to offer quality degrees at a lower cost per student.

“I do think that the traditional institutions have a tremendous amount of pressure right now,” Bacow says, “ to think about — how can [we] provide what’s known as a ‘traditional education’ more efficiently, at lower cost?”

Joseph Aoun, the president of Northeastern University, argues that cost isn’t the only issue higher education needs to address. He thinks universities should play a bigger role in preparing their students for society 2.0. It’s not enough to know how to solve a problem or formulate an argument, he says, if you are not also informed about globalization, technology, and the job market.

“We have created a dichotomy between teaching students how to live and how to earn a living,” says Aoun. “We have to start merging the two together. Employers, for instance, want students to be ready to face the world — not face only a particular discipline, but the world as a whole.”

Bacow sees a different reason to preserve colleges and universities. Without them, he reminds us, there would be no venue for the research in fields from science to history to mathematics that stimulates our economy and makes our country competitive. That’s just one of the reasons Bacow thinks that though some traditional colleges will close their doors, most will carry on — albeit with a different structure.

But as to what that structure will be in 10, 20, or 30 years, Bacow is just as stumped as the rest of us.

“I honestly believe that anyone who tells you they know how this is going to end up is blowing smoke,” Bacow says. “Nobody really knows.”