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An Educational Extinction Event?

January 29, 2010

Could universities become extinct in the next twenty-five years?

Bud Peterson is the {11}^{th} president of Georgia Tech—he is the boss of the boss of the boss of my boss.

Today I plan to talk about the role of Georgia Tech (GIT) in the world of 2035—that is 25 years from now. Peterson started, right after he arrived at Tech last spring, a project on strategic planning. It is an ambitious strategic planning process that is asking the question: “What should Georgia Tech look like in the year 2035?”

Planning Process

The process, at GIT, is getting inputs from all sources possible right now, and is asking all the right questions:

  1. How do we keep GIT on top?
  2. How do we make GIT one of the best educational institutions?
  3. How do we make GIT one of the best research institutions?
  4. and so on {\dots}

One question is missing from the list:

Poterintne exsistere certe Officinarum Artes Georgicae in anno MMXXXV?

Sorry, I asked the question in Latin—scholars used to use Latin—my mistake. Thanks to Ken Regan’s daughter’s Latin teacher for the better phrase. What I meant to say is: Will Georgia Tech be around in 2035?

I think there are two reasons to not ask this question. One is it is “obvious” to all that we will be around—pretty much like today—only better. Only using newer technology, but still doing pretty much the same stuff that we did 25 years ago. The trouble with this argument is that I bet that the slide-rule companies thought that they would always be around, I bet that Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) thought that it would always be around, and {\dots} I do not know if dinosaurs could think—I doubt it—but if they could they should have worried about their possible extinction.

Another reason that no ones asks my question, “will we be around”, is that the question is too scary. Who wants to think about such a scary question? I once asked a technical question at a talk. The speaker paused for a long time and said: “that’s a dangerous question.” What does that mean? Anyway let’s get back to GIT.

I think there is a danger that GIT as we know it today could disappear by 2035. Not just GIT, but all schools, colleges, and universities—at all levels. I think that there is a chance that they could all be gone. They will be replaced by something, but that something may be very different from GIT.

What Do Universities Do?

Let’s start by considering what universities do today.

{\bullet} Educate students. Universities teach undergrads and grad students educational material. This is one, not the, main job of any school: teach students, whether it is formal mathematics or literature. This is the core of any educational institution.

{\bullet} Socialize students. Universities help in the socialization of the students. Going to a school helps change teens into young adults. Students learn much outside of the formal courses that they take.

{\bullet} Network students. Universities help students form networks of people that may be with them for life. Some will meet people that they may work together with in a start-up or a existing company, some may meet colleagues that will be a resource for them throughout their careers, others may meet just good friends, while some will meet their future spouses.

{\bullet} Research and innovation. Universities do a huge amount of the fundamental research in all aspects of science and technology. Most faculty, especially at the top universities, see this as one of the things that they enjoy the most.

Education Extinct Event

I think there is a definite chance that there could be an Education Extinct Event (EEE). Schools—in the general sense—could disappear. Like the dinosaurs, like empires, like whole industries, like many things, schools could become extinct.

What are the reasons that they will become extinct? The main reason I see is the threat from on-line educational systems such as the University of Phoenix and others. Let’s call current GIT and the rest the Un‘s and the new Phoenix style On. The Un‘s are universities as they are today, and the On‘s are like Phoenix type systems that are mostly on-line.

One of the keys to an extinction event is that until it actually happens those who are about to become extinct are usually in denial. If I ask you are you about to become extinct, you almost always say no—not a chance. But, species, companies, and perhaps universities become extinct.

Peter Drucker said in Forbes a while ago:

“Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.

“Do you realize that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of health care? And for the middle-class family, college education for their children is as much of a necessity as is medical care—without it the kids have no future.

“Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. Higher education is in deep crisis.”

Un’s vs On’s

How well could the On‘s do what the Un‘s do now? I will leave the economic arguments to those who know better—like Drucker.

{\bullet} Educate students. I see no reason that On could not do as good a job as Un‘s with this basic goal. The usual response is that there would be a loss of interaction with the professors and with fellow students. In 25 years perhaps there could be much more interaction with the On model. Imagine that they have a virtual world where you can talk to my avatar—when ever you like and for as long as you like?

{\bullet} Socialize students. This is perhaps one of the places where Un have an advantage. But, On may already, or could in the next few years create mechanisms that help in this important area. Again 25 years is a very long time, in which huge changes could occur in how humans interact with each other.

{\bullet} Network students. This is one where Un think they have a lead, but I think that is unclear. The rise of net based communities of all kinds may make this a tie at best. One could imagine On putting enough resources into on-line communities of all kinds that give them a lead here.

{\bullet} Research and innovation. This is the place that I think Un have and will continue to have a unique advantage. I will come back to this in a moment.

What To Do?

Since research and innovation is the one place where I see Un‘s having a great advantage over On‘s this is what I would do:

  1. Confront the existence question head-on. It was not a good strategy for any of the now extinct companies to avoid thinking about it. We must address the question directly.
  2. Realize that some of the primary functions that we perform must change. Perhaps they can be out-sourced to On‘s. Or done in totally new ways. But, I doubt that business as usual will succeed.
  3. Embrace our fundamental role of research and innovation. We must become the {{21}^{st}} century place to do this. We already are doing a pretty good job—perhaps we can do much more. Advanced degrees and research are probably the places that we can succeed over On‘s for the next 25 years, if not longer.

Open Problems

What do you think? Will GIT be around in 2035? Will universities become extinct? Could we be facing an EEE?

Finally, I note that my good friend Rich DeMillo is finishing a book on these and related issues. Also see Vonda Sines piece on this same topic.

64 Comments leave one →
  1. Craig permalink
    January 29, 2010 9:49 am

    It’s a no-brainer that for the typical 18-22 year old an education from a live campus is better than an education from a virtual campus. However, once you throw in costs and the fact that it is now impossible to default on a student loan, a University of Phoenix education looks very attractive.

  2. asterix permalink
    January 29, 2010 10:04 am

    The university of Phoenix is still rather expensive, around $500 per credit according to their website–about the same cost as a cheap state school. There are some other schools where you can pay $99 per month and take as many classes as you like. This obviously can be much cheaper depending on how motivated you are.

    Anyway, what I would do today (or in the future) if online degrees become more widely offered and are cheap: I would sign up at the school with a program that is affordable and has “basic” science courses. If the online version of the courses were not that good, i.e. lecturer not great, then you go to MIT open courseware and watch the lectures on that topic there. You can surf the web to find homeworks and solutions in order to practice/learn the material on your own. In fact, I think many students of today are already getting educations that are highly enhanced from online access, because they have access to a plethora of useful course materials that were not available to students ten years ago.

  3. January 29, 2010 10:40 am

    If education is a commodity, the university system is doomed. It faces a fairly severe challenge even if it’s not a commodity, but the headlong rush to uniformity and scalability is incompatible with the posh role of the prof.

    And I doubt research is the answer absent an intense corporatizing influence that would functionally turn the university into a research arm of industry, which will leave little space for education.

  4. Latin Scholar permalink
    January 29, 2010 11:19 am

    Prof Lipton: your Latin is so bad, it’s not even wrong.

    • rjlipton permalink*
      January 29, 2010 12:48 pm

      I used a translator. Please send me the right phrase and I will fix it…

    • January 29, 2010 1:27 pm

      Care to elaborate? It was originally translating “”Will Georgia Tech certainly be able to exist in the year 2035?” There are macrons over the final ‘e’ in “certe” and the ‘o’ in “anno”. “Tech-” in Greek == “arte-” in classical Latin, and “officinarum” means institute here.

  5. anon permalink
    January 29, 2010 11:43 am

    A topic near-and-dear to my heart.

    I think at the undergraduate level the Ons will wind up being vastly better than the Uns for education in technical subjects because the online format will allow for vastly more course design than is really practical at an existing university.

    The big weakness of real-world universities for undergraduate education is that the instructors are thin on the ground and there’s essentially no flexibility in terms of course length and start date.

    In a perfect world each student would be paired with a single tutor and would learn the course material at the fastest pace that student can manage comfortably; such an approach would maximize student learning but would be extremely costly to implement in the real world.

    In a less-perfect world the same course — intro to the theory of computation, say — would be presented at multiple paces, say a 3-month version for the smarties, a 4-month version for the above-averages, a 5-month version for the normals, and so on (all the way down to 7-9 month versions for the slows or the lazies). This introduces some mismatches — some above-averages could go a little faster or a little slower than 4 months, but would find the 3-month too fast and the 5-month too slow — but reduces the # of instructors needed and thus is less costly than the perfect version.

    In the real world the rigidity of university schedules and the lack of instructors means courses are taught at a one-pace-fits-all approach most of the time. This is suboptimal from a learning standpoint — most courses are too slow or too fast for the students in them, especially at the 101/201 level — and leads to side-effects like “weeding out” (in which a student finds they’re unable to keep up with the material at the pace it’s presented in that department and thus should change into an easier major; in a better world they’d at least have the option of the 6-year decelerated CS program if that was really what they wanted to go into, and could afford it).

    Online universities will be able to offer courses in a much wider range of paces and with a lot more flexibility in terms of start dates and so on. I question the wisdom of someone embarking on the 6-year “decelerated” CS program but it would be an option; in the present system their only options are to change out to a degree for which they can keep up with the instruction, or to struggle all the way through it with only a shaky grasp of the material they were trying to learn.

    • January 30, 2010 10:24 am

      Anon, can you identify a single course today that is better taught by Ons than Uns? Let’s measure “better taught” as “area under the curvey” — you could have a few students learn lots, or all students learn some.

      Given the failure rates of Ons, I think Uns win the latter form. Ons get rid of the lower half of the course distribution more than the Uns, so the lower-knowledge students probably aren’t learning lots in Uns. Given that the best students teach themselves anyway, there’s no different for them in Ons vs. Uns.

      Overall, I fear that the extinction of the Uns is the extinction of higher-education as an equalizing factor in society.

  6. January 29, 2010 12:00 pm

    More and more universities are offering one-year professional masters programs; pioneering examples are the Perimeter Scholars International (PSI) Certificate and the Wilmott Certificate in Quantitative Finance (CQF).

    Fast-paced curricula teach plenty of technical knowledge and (in many cases) the programs offer too the convenience of remote learning.

    But (obviously) these programs do *not* inculcate academic values—it’s simply infeasible to do so in one year. Moreover, these programs are often taught with visiting faculty who are on-leave from regular jobs (in academia or in industry); this further weakens the academic ties.

    Nonetheless, the demand for these programs is high, and it *will* be met … thus pretty much every academic institution will be forced (by economics) to go down this path.

  7. anon permalink
    January 29, 2010 12:04 pm

    Oh, one more thing.

    The universities are going to remain the best place to do research and graduate-level education for quite some time for what I think are obvious reasons.

    I think the thing to watch out for is that perhaps by 2035 you’ll start to see PhD programs and undergraduate programs “merge”, in the sense that many students will be showing up for a 6-year PhD program without having done any true undergrad program (in the way some schools have direct undergrad -> MD programs).

    As online college-level instruction becomes more available you’ll see a lot more advanced high-school level students who’ll have gotten through most of the course material for undergrad degrees in technical areas (math, physics, cs, etc.) before they graduate from high school (or get to age 18, in case “high schools” don’t exist either by 2035).

    IMHO the limiting factors on that phenomena right now are more social and institutional than intellectual: most high schools don’t have the instructor depth to teach undergrad-level technical courses to that extent, so any sufficiently-advanced students would have to go enroll at a local university instead; it’s time-consuming for the parents to shuttle the kid between two schools, so to go all-out the kid probably has to skip high school and go straight to university; most parents don’t want their kid to skip high school for social reasons (the kid’s socialization, the parent’s not wanting to look like freaks) and so the kid stays in high school, usually.

    Online no one knows you’re a dog — or you’re 14 — so the accessibility of online college-level instruction will over the long haul lead to lots more kids arriving on-campus already mostly done with the 100-200 level course sequences in technical areas.

  8. Paul Beame permalink
    January 29, 2010 12:23 pm

    As a parent of a high school senior I can attest that you greatly underestimate the value parents place on socialization. (The Open University in Britain has been doing this kind of instruction for almost 40 years and it doesn’t seem to have made a dent in the Un model. ) The difference is that the new American Ou‘s have figured out a part of the business that is actually profitable.

    The Ou‘s are likely to obviate the need for new brick-and-mortar 4-year commuter campuses to handle growing population. However, once you have the big lecture hall already built, the delivery of an online course is actually more expensive than an in-person course. The Ou‘s advantage over already builtUn‘s is that they can concentrate on the profitable high volume part of the business and can avoid some those expensive areas that a typical full-service Un provides. I don’t see on-line students doing chemistry labs…

    The high tuition, high financial aid model of Un‘s pushes people paying the high tuition away from places like the humanities, where recouping the tuition expenditure looks unlikely to families, to more technical subjects or to business-oriented subjects. (People paying that high tuition for the humanities subsidize the education not only of those requiring financial aid but also of those doing sciences and engineering which are much more expensive to offer on a per-student basis.) Responding to this shift in demand is likely to change the composition of faculties eventually, though the incentive for universities is to do this slowly because of the increased cost. If anything this suggests that the model of a technically oriented GIT is likely to be one of the more stable models of the future Un.

    • rjlipton permalink*
      January 29, 2010 12:46 pm

      As a parent of three who all went to Un’s, I agree with Paul that social issue is a huge one for parents. I simply am questioning if there could be way to do that in the future.

      One thing that we must remember: a first year student in 2035 with not be born for about 7 years. I think that the world could vastly change in these next years.

  9. January 29, 2010 12:43 pm

    Paul Beame says: “I don’t see on-line students doing chemistry labs…”

    Nor do the want to. On our UW campus, last week’s synthetic biology seminar had 54 students and postdocs show up … only two faculty … and the discussion was software-and-simulation only. I’ve been attending this seminar for six months, and attendance has doubled in that time.

    The point is that producing wet-bench laboratory data is increasingly viewed—by UW students, if not by faculty—as a occupation that is readily outsourced and readily automated. In contrast, expertise in the simulation-and-software sector of synthetic biology is viewed as a skill-set that is readily ported to many occupations; financial engineering for example.

    This trend is evident not only in biological reseach, but throughout health sciences and colleges of engineering. It is IMHO good news for the mathematics-and-computation community.

  10. beki70 permalink
    January 29, 2010 1:12 pm

    Dick, excellent post. I’ve riffed on it at length on my blog ( Here I just want to point out that it is likely that the UNs, traditional universities will do the type of research that allows the ONs to leverage and innovate in online distance education. At best I find that ironic.

  11. Simon permalink
    January 29, 2010 1:14 pm

    anon wrote:
    “In a perfect world each student would be paired with a single tutor and would learn the course material at the fastest pace that student can manage comfortably; such an approach would maximize student learning but would be extremely costly to implement in the real world.”

    You say that, but it’s almost exactly the way Athabasca University, an online university in Canada, operates today: Each student is assigned a tutor for their course and works at their own pace, with few fixed deadlines beyond a time limit for the course itself. I find it much better than the traditional four-months-of-lectures approach.

  12. Alejandro Weinstein permalink
    January 29, 2010 1:15 pm

    Bruce Eckel has a similar opinion:

    • rjlipton permalink*
      January 30, 2010 8:34 am

      Thanks. He makes some great points. Thanks for pointing his ideas out.

  13. SPQR permalink
    January 29, 2010 1:41 pm

    My fading memory of Latin humbly suggests:

    Existere poteritne Officina Georgica Artium anno MMXXXV ?

    (Officina is the subject, hence the verb and the adjective are in singular form; “Artium” = of Arts; “in” is already expressed by the ablative case of “anno”)

    • January 30, 2010 3:05 pm

      Thanks! In the e-mail to my friend I wrote “Georgia Tech” not “Georgia Institute of Technology”. That caused “Georgia” to be treated as an adjective, hence “Tech” as a noun and the subject (rendered plural), and I guess “Officinarum” became an attribute or instrumental. Given that, was there anything wrong with it?

      The one other ingredient is we wanted to convey the idea of “Is it obvious/certain that GaTech will exist in 2035?” Hence the “certe”. The “Poteri(n)tne” has overtones of this when read “could possibly not” already, but we want some added emphasis of the “are you sure?” kind to make this a wake-up call.

  14. wiki pics permalink
    January 29, 2010 1:57 pm

    “In a perfect world each student would be paired with a single tutor and would learn the course material at the fastest pace that student can manage comfortably; such an approach would maximize student learning but would be extremely costly to implement in the real world. ”

    It depends on how you measure cost. Since many people (especially people who do not come from academic families and do not have opportunities outside school) would be more likely to have their full potential reached in this scenario, on the whole it might lead to much higher productivity.

    Also, it would create jobs. Surely, a tutor could have several students at a time. Also, currently, let’s face it, most professors do not care about undergraduate education. They like being professors because of research and because of the high status. A system of tutors–people who genuinely care about ugrad education–would be a very good thing.

  15. January 29, 2010 2:27 pm

    Ad “anon”, re: “In a perfect world each student would be paired with a single tutor and would learn the course material at the fastest pace that student can manage comfortably; such an approach would maximize student learning but would be extremely costly to implement in the real world.”

    That’s pretty close to the Oxford/Cambridge/etc. tutorial system, as it’s been for ages. It’s hard for Americans to appreciate how different the atmosphere is there from a US university. Except for endowed chairs (which are rarer), people are paid by college not department. It does involve a lot of undergraduate teaching—and it’s expensive in its own right.

    Re “In the real world the rigidity of university schedules and the lack of instructors means courses are taught at a one-pace-fits-all approach most of the time. This is suboptimal from a learning standpoint — most courses are too slow or too fast for the students in them, especially at the 101/201 level — and leads to side-effects like “weeding out” “…

    How would the differential-speed approach play out when one transits to the business world? My other comment, as someone who spends a lot of one-on-one time with certain students in my courses, is that “weeding out” has a lot to do with ability, not just speed of learning. Also, my university regards taking 5+ years for a bachelor’s degree as a negative statistic…

    Ad John and Paul re multi-year degrees, indeed our late president Bill Greiner gave a speech in the late 1990s saying ‘as the high-school diploma was in the 1930s, and the bachelor’s was in the 1960s, the Master’s degree is today…’ We have a combined BS-MS program. Also, I’d like to elaborate the query about how one does labs online (I can add to John’s reply that even internal surgery now incorporates simulators) into: how are problem set submissions graded online—?—where the linear reasoning process,/i>, not just factual numerical/textual answers, needs to be evaluated?

    One great leveler is that universities’ great libraries used to be indispensable, but now even their information is going online and being otherwise de-centralized. This helps the smaller, nimbler community colleges, whose merging with online delivery I see as the real competition.

    • January 29, 2010 2:28 pm

      Oops, bad closing tag—just “universities’ great libraries” was supposed to be italicized in the last paragraph.

    • anon permalink
      January 29, 2010 4:36 pm

      Regan: good points, I’ll address a few.

      I think the differential-speed thing plays out in a couple different ways when graduates go on to industry. If you’re in academia I can see how you’d be concerned that it leaves students ill-prepared for the business world, b/c you see most students at an immature point in their lives and very few ever come back to check in once they’ve matured.

      From out here “in industry” I can say I think that THAT worry is overblown: right out the gate most current graduates are already very ill-adapted to the business world in hundreds of little ways, and one more maladaption isn’t going to prove fatal. On my experience within at most 6months-1yr post-graduation just about all graduates have adapted to real-world, and usually more like 3-4 months at a real job or less. So that’s no biggy.

      From the hiring perspective a properly implemented self-paced program is appealing. The problem with grades is that for non-A-students they are too underspecified to be useful. What I’d love to see:

      – graduate S attained A-level mastery of “algorithms and data structures 101” after six months (instead of the usual 4); assuming no bugs in the system this tells me the graduate has a full grasp of 101-level algorithms and data structures and that they’re a bit of a slow learner

      …and what I actually see:

      – graduate S has an A- in-major GPA and the transcript says B- on “algorithms and data structures”. This tells me the graduate is probably a little less bright than I’d want, but doesn’t tell me much about the graduate’s eventual mastery of those topics. Some students wind up mastering material they didn’t learn well the first time through as they go on in their education (eg: not every physics grad had straight-As in calc and diffeq, but most physics grad have what I’d call A-level mastery of basic calc and diffeq b/c they use it so much); others just are totally missing certain knowledge sets (eg: our graduate weak in algorithms-and-data-structures might not know anything about dynamic programming, branch-and-bound, and so on, despite averaging out to A-/B+ in her other courses).

      The easy solution is to only hire A students, but that’s the predicament: when I see bad grades I learn something about the student’s performance but never what I really want to know, which is “what does the student actually know?”. If they kept at the course until they had A-level mastery it’d be easier to assess their actual competence from a transcript, and this increased uniformity would be a huge win for hirers like me.

      So that’s my take on how differential pacing plays out: kids come out a little snottier and a litlte more ill-adapted but will adjust quickly enough, and hiring is easier b/c it’s easier to interpret student attainment (and student attainment is, presumably, more complete).

      The “time to degree” thing currently being negative is a bit of a red herring. Currently taking 5 years (or, god forbid, 6) to get a bachelors is a bad outcome and justifiably so: it is almost always some mix of the student lacking direction (and therefore changing majors too often to get out on time), a failure leading to schedule slippage (student fails course B’s prereq course A, and has to wait a year to re-take A before moving on to B), or institutional undercapacity (not enough slots in required classes to fit all the students, as happens at large state schools from time to time).

      In a self-paced program taking 5 years to a degree would mean something slightly different: it means that in your chosen field of study you weren’t bright enough to finish in four or three years. This reflects somewhat poorly on the individual — and I tend to think in such a world individuals would be well advised to choose fields they could get through in 2-3 years — but it’s negative for different reasons than the current “5-year BA” is negative.

      About the slowness and ability thing: I think in general that for theoretical topics your take is more true, and that for CS in particular — applied or theoretical — there are definitely people who just don’t get it, and that’s a further confounding factor. I see how what I wrote sounds like “anyone can learn anything if they have enough time” which certainly isn’t the case. In particular I’ve mentioned that I think it would be unwise to take the 6-year BA in CS even if the institution let you, due to comparative advantage and all that.

      The important use is to let a course’s end-date slip a month or two (eg: let a student stay in algos-and-data-structures) long enough for the student to learn all the material in the course. Right now that’s impractical b/c the next semester’s classes have a single fixed start date.

      I can’t see in-person universities ever being flexible enough to accommodate that; there’s not enough instructors and the administrative overhead is too high.

      All of the above should be ended by noting I don’t think existing universities do a terrible job or anything like that; I do think that there are particular improvements that real universities can’t implement that online universities can implement, and that as online universities do implement those they’ll increasingly be the better choice for students seeking out an undergraduate education.

      • James permalink
        January 29, 2010 5:28 pm

        I’m not sure I agree 100% about time taken to complete a bachelor’s degree. If the student was a full-time student, then yes, taking 6 years does reflect badly.

        I’m about halfway through mine, in 3 years, since I have a full-time job and I’m doing it after hours.

        I’d strongly disagree with the notion that I am somehow a sub-par student or less intelligent 🙂

  16. January 29, 2010 3:13 pm

    I will add to Ken Regan’s (excellent) reply, that our Orthopaedic Department sustains a student-to-faculty ratio of approximately unity, throughout a post-graduate curriculum that lasts ten (!) years … with *no* state support.

    What economic model accomplishes this miracle? Students learn medicine by immersive apprenticeship in the practice of medicine.

    Why do students stick it out for a full decade (four years med school, six years residency/fellowship)? Because medical care is provided in the context of a public performance in which students and faculty participate fully. Because students, residents, and faculty share heavy responsibilities. Because it’s fun.

  17. Rajat Datta permalink
    January 29, 2010 3:53 pm

    So, why is Research and Innovation any better done at a educational institution? I think I understand why a business environment could, and likely will be a disadvantage, but why is a university better other than the fact that the need to make an annual profit is removed? Is it the supply of cheap labor of graduate students?

    What would it take to start an institution dedicated solely to research and innovation? Funded, as is some universities, through a land grant that generates a certain amount of rent, or something like that. There will still be some pressure with money and budgets (I don’t know that any ivory tower benefits from having no monetary pressure to perform). It would attract more money for its endowment based on how successful the member researchers actually are.

    Why won’t we, in 25 years, see a split between education and research? What keeps them tied together at the hip? Surely, good researchers are rarely good teachers and vice versa.

  18. proaonuiq permalink
    January 29, 2010 6:46 pm

    1. Non bis in idem: translation in this context: nothing can be rediscovered twice.
    2. Lo que es finito, debe terminar (this is not latin but since it is one of its derived languages i hope your readers can accept it; just translate in the same context)
    3. Will this end happen before year 2035 ? I bet (say) yes.
    4. Will we need (fundamental) scientific research by year 2035 ? I bet (say) no.

    P.d. I can not give but all my support to your Boss^4. I´ve designed myself the strategic plan for (a non educational) organisation, only for a few years forward term, and it was like skying in a foggy day: what can we say about such a long term, in such a turbulent times !

  19. January 29, 2010 8:50 pm

    You don’t mention the issue of credentials, which is almost on a par with networking as a top reason why people are willing to spend so much on higher education. (My guess is that socialization comes third and that the actual quality of education is a far last.)

    Even if online universities take over undergraduate education, which they can do only if their credentials begin to acquire high value in the job market, it is possible to imagine a school of engineering, or biology, running exclusively as a graduate school, with no undergraduate program, and supporting itself solely on the overhead on extramural funds and on returns on the endowment.

    It should also be noted that people may not be buying many slide rules any more, but they still buy Swiss mechanical watches, haute couture clothes, and Ferraris, even though less labor-intensive and cheaper (by a factor of 10 or 100 or more) alternatives with similar functionalities exist. I am willing to bet that Harvard, and maybe even UC Berkeley, will exist a hundred years from now.

    • January 29, 2010 9:13 pm

      Luca, shouldn’t we be planning to have 10X as many universities a century hence, rather than 1/10X?

      On a planet with 10^10 people, isn’t any other plan setting the bar shockingly low?

    • rjlipton permalink*
      January 30, 2010 8:41 am


      I agree and disagree. All my kids went to Ivy schools. But I wonder a bit about your argument. Ten years after employment, do you have any idea where your co-worker went to school? Any chance you would know if they got a 4.0 or just got by? I doubt it?

      The president’s of some of the most prestigious universities did their graduate work at not top universities. They got where they are by merit.

      • January 31, 2010 11:26 am

        Dick, you might have mentioned GIT’s new president G. P. “Bud” Peterson was educated at Kansas State (undergrad) and Texas A&M (PdD).

        Ast the Vulcan High Council said to Spock (in the latest Star Trek Movie): “You have done well, young Bud … despite your … handicap.” 🙂

  20. January 30, 2010 11:57 am

    Regarding Networking and Socialization there are well know pitfalls with online interaction which are very detrimental even today.

  21. February 2, 2010 2:49 am

    I think you presented well what universities should be doing, but unfortunately, they are less and less teaching students, socializing students, networking students, or leading research and innovation.

    There is a key distinction to be made: universities don’t pay professors to teach or do innovative research; they pay professors to talk in front of students and to write papers. Moreover, professors are not selected to teach or do real research; they are selected to write papers. Some professors, of their own accord, choose to teach and do research, but this is largely independent of their university.

    If and when enough high school students and companies to hire them start realizing that universities don’t teach students, universities will start to feel the pinch. If, however, and hopefully,universities decide to change from their current course and start making teaching and real research a priority, making the façade a reality, they may hang on. I really hope universities do decide to make the necessary change to do what they should be doing in the first place.

  22. Jonathan Katz permalink
    February 3, 2010 9:40 am

    An excellent and thought-provoking post.

    I don’t think the UNs will go away, certainly not all of them and certainly not in 25 years, but I do believe they will have to change in order to stay relevant.

    I didn’t read the Drucker piece (the link seems not to be working?) but I do have to respond to the except you gave here with the obvious retort: does Drucker similarly believe that health care will disappear in 25 years?! Of course not — it’s just that it will have to change (one hopes).

  23. George Burdell permalink
    February 5, 2010 12:19 am

    I’m an alum of the CoC and came across your blog.

    Georgia Tech is such a terrible school. CoC is a terrible place and the faculty are the meanest and most disgusting human beings I’ve ever known. Karloff is one of the worst.

    If Georgia Tech were to cease to exist in 2035, I certainly wouldn’t be shedding any tears!

  24. February 7, 2010 7:12 pm

    Universities will continue to exist in their current form for graduate students and research, but not for most undergrad teaching. Even the parts of undergrad teaching that Un can do better than On will become economically infeasible once most of the teaching goes online and takes the tuition dollars with it. As it should be, since it’s just stupid that to learn something, you need to physically be in one specific place during some specific days and hours of the year, otherwise forget it and maybe we’ll see you next year. And where the hell is the rhyme or reason in every college in the world giving for all practical purposes identical Linear Algebra I or Intro to English Lit courses taught by whichever unlucky rather-be-researching prof the lot happened to fall upon this time, aided by the same incomprehensible grad student TA’s?

    If you don’t mind links to ultra-reactionary opinions, I believe that Gary North has said it best in his essay “Wal-Mart University: No More Boola-Boola” at

    (One can mentally find and replace “Wal-Mart” by “Google” in the entire text to make it more palatable without changing anything of its essence.)

  25. otakucode permalink
    February 9, 2010 2:23 pm

    I’m surprised that you did not address the most likely case. Schools may cease to exist because knowledge has ceased to be valued by society. Right now, the entire planet is caught up in a massive anti-intellectual frenzy. Intellectuals are reviled from every corner, scientists viewed as scammers and dangerous. Those that are the most dedicated to ignorance and irrationality are held up as icons and worshipped specifically for their rejection of reason and knowledge. My guess would be that the best chance for schools to not exist in 25 years would be because an ardently religious politician would get into power, further extend the religion of irrationality into every segment of society, and portray scientific fact as heretical and as attacks on “common sense” or “accepted truth.” We already see large groups of people fighting against even the most beneficent findings of science (vaccines, medicine, nuclear power, etc) and gladly accepting the carnage that is the alternative. I believe it is quite likely that we will have to go back to a situation where the irrational beliefs of individuals cost them their life before science can regain any respect. By providing enough protection from the dangers of the world even to those who are irrational, we’ve designed the perfect environment for our own demise as thinking people.

  26. sppatech permalink
    February 26, 2010 8:22 pm

    This has been a fascinating conversation, but I want to comment on several of Dick’s first points with some excerpts from Everett Dean Martin’s “The Meaning of Liberal Education”:

    “The motives which lead people to seek college education divide the students into three types. First there are the few who love learning. Such students may need guidance, advice and the fellowship of mature scholars. It is not necessary to force them to study, or offer them “snap courses,” or cram them for examination. Most of them would become educated persons even if they never saw a college classroom.

    A second type of student attends college and university in large numbers. The motive is preparation for a professional career. Many of the best students belong to this type. Whether in addition to their professional training they ever gain an education — the two are not necessarily the same — will depend largely upon what they do after they get their degrees. If they then have an interest in educating themselves, their technical training ought to be an advantage, for most of them have learned how to study. But so much purely technical knowledge must be drilled into a man’s head that the student who is preparing for a degree in engineering, law, medicine, or scientific research has very little time for anything else.”

    The third type, the majority of undergraduate students, are for the most part pleasant young men and women of the upper middle class. Their parents are “putting them through college” because it is the expected thing to do. Students of this type enjoy four happy years, largely at public expense, with other young people of their own age in an environment designed to keep them out of mischief. I have no doubt this grown-up kindergarten life is good for them; most of them seem to appreciate it. In later years they remain enthusiastically loyal to Alma Mater, coming back to football games and class reunions and contributing to the support of the college. As alumni their influence is not always on the side of progress in education, but perhaps they make up for this failure in other ways.”

    Now about the only leisure class we have in America is the undergraduate student body. It is bad for the morale of any institution to sail under false colors, and colleges are popularly supposed to be educational institutions. The college faculties themselves must to some extent share this popular delusion, or else they would not permit the public to go on believing it. The attempt to live up to this erroneous idea puts everybody under a strain, students and faculty alike, and is the one unpleasant thing about college life. Instructors are forever annoying the students, trying to get some work out of them. Attendance on classes is required, and a series of examinations is arranged which nobody enjoys and which do no good anyway.”

    Martin’s book was published in 1926.

    He went on to argue that the true value of a university education was something that I don’t think the Ons could produce:

    “Moral behavior is not only social. It is also intelligent behavior. An act has moral significance when the performance shows insight into the situation. An action done under compulsion or without understanding has no moral value. A machine may behave very correctly but it is not a moral being. An act has moral meaning to just the extent that its author grasps the implications of the situation in which he must act and is guided by consideration of the results. It is the aim of education to develop the insight and foresight and breadth of vision which make it possible for an individual to take responsibility for the results of his behavior. Thus the aims of education and morals are the same; — the good life in so far as it may be attained by intelligent choice and behavior.”

    In other words, one view of the lasting value of the Un is that it brings young men and women together only partly to “receive” an education, in the same way that one would be exposed to information via the University of Phoenix. Much to the frustration of many faculty, our undergraduates see their courses and professors as only one part of the college experience. They also learn by coping with snoring roommates, grouchy parking offices, student government intrigues, faulty alarm clocks, and midnight bull sessions about the meaning of life. They come to us partly to be a part of a “community,” which most American students haven’t really experienced, at least not voluntarily. And their new community includes people with values and beliefs they’ve never heard or dealt with, who challenge them and force them to consider, articulate, reconsider, and often change their own beliefs.

    So my answer to the penultimate question in this thread is: “what universities do is help 18-year-olds grow up, in many senses of the term — in ways that they will never grow up online.”

    And this goes far beyond credentialing, tutoring, and chemistry labs.

  27. Alan Kay permalink
    February 27, 2010 10:43 am

    This seems to be part of the large misinterpretation of “Education” as “acquiring knowledge” that has been prevalent for a long time.

    A bigger view is that where a student might want to get from the A they think they are at, to some imagined B, a good education will take them to a C that was outside their horizon.

    In other words, the real deal is about moving to powerful outlooks and perspectives rather then adding to one’s knowledge in unsophisticated outlooks.

    From this point of view, both the Uns and the Ons fall far short (but with a tiny few interesting exceptions)

  28. Rosemarie Wojcik permalink
    April 21, 2010 3:16 pm

    You never mention one of the issues that would have killed the American auto industry except the US government has bailed it out a few times … tenured faculty. (the equivalent of union employees being paid $95 an hour to watch a machine.) Maybe because that is something too close to the heart and soul of your reader and yourself. Tenured faculty – like the auto unions – have no motivation to change or to improve. They are a protected class. Students must buy their books, no matter how outdated. Students must listen to their stories, no matter how irrelevant. Students must suffer through their Power Point presentations or poorly copied handouts and often find a way to ‘acquire’ the knowledge for a project, an exam, or a paper that serves little purpose to them in the real world. Tenured faculty perhaps had a purpose long ago in a country far, far away. Harvard was afraid of losing their best and brightest minds to Princeton so they handcuffed them to the university. But, today, the tenured professorship is as bad for business as a union. The way they attained tenure has nothing to do with students or classroom innovation. Did the university embark on a strategic search to find the very best and calibrate what they had against what they could attain? Not likely. There are no real metrics it would seem to ensure they continue to innovate and continue to be evaluated for high performance and relevance either. Once they are tenured, put a fork in them, they are done. Their tenure was granted for writing books and doing research. While you could suggest that they will apply that professorial knowledge in the classroom, there is no guarantee and often little proof that it is true. I have worked at several universities. I have managed EMBA programs and watched the tenured, seasoned faculty come first – over the needs of students, over the needs of the university. The mission to be the best in education needs to be re-evaluated from a Balanced Scorecard perspective so that it is not mis-communicated to mean that professors are royalty and cannot be touched because they are the educators. They are merely one piece of the strategic puzzle. No more important really today than the many other pieces of the puzzle. Yet, no Dean dare ruffle the feathers of the tenured Marketing Professor. Long past his prime with no real world experience … his books were written in the 1970s and yet are still required for the course. At an average cost of $70K for an EMBA program … students and their corporate sponsors should have a voice in what they want and how they want it. But, it is only the very best that have understood that they must listen, adapt, embrace a New World.

    One of the most curious things about the way a university works you mention at the start … the new President came to the faculty and asked them what the university will look like in 2035. Did he expect to get a creative rendering. It will look the way it always looked if the only reference point is the one that is sitting comfortably in a swivel chair that moves him or her around the classroom while he presses the little button for the next slide. Everywhere I have been, I have seen this approach. Let’s ask the faculty what they would like the new program to look like. Let’s get all the tenured faculty into a room and have them generate ideas. They should know what to do. They are brilliant afterall. Not suspecting they aren’t capable but it always puzzles me that the Marketing professor doesn’t stand up and say … gee, we might want to get some outside thought leaders involved. Let’s do some benchmarking with other industries that have gone through significant change, how about organizations that seem to innovate in crises situations … like IBM or Apple. Maybe we should send some folks over there. And what about Phoenix. Oh, easy to take shots at the Phoenix of the world. But, be aware the burning may just be the university that stood too long in the same spot, clinging to the tenured notion.

    The soul of civilization is learning and societies crave it. The fate of the university system will not be a lack of a customer. It will be its own arrogance in believing that they will solve it by having a few faculty members tackle the problem.

    • April 22, 2010 7:13 pm

      I very much agree. The entire concept of absolute tenure is ridiculous and does serious harm to the education of students.

      A semi-related issue that Bjarne Stroustrup (creator of C++) raised recently is that Computer Science professors, especially professors who’ve been in academia for a long time, are often completely out of touch with the entire purpose of Computer Science: to make better computer systems. They’ll often teach and design curricula based on concepts of algorithms and software development that haven’t been considered reasonable for decades, (if they feel motivated to teach at all).

      Some things don’t change quickly, but something (i.e. knowledge) tells me that learning about development for and architecture of a 286 CPU isn’t very applicable to development for and architecture of a Core i7 CPU. It’s not much (if any) harder to teach the latter, but you won’t find modern CPU architecture in any university CS courses around, and advancements in architecture are certainly not being pioneered at universities.


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