It’s often hard to predict the future. But not always. For example, I’m certain that in 2050, barring global catastrophe, there will be a place called “the University of California, Berkeley” where exceptionally bright student will come to live and study. Eminent scholars will be there too, working with one another and teaching students face-to-face. People will drink too much on weekends, go to football games, say things that they’ll look back on with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, and complain about parking.
I’m just as certain that in 2050 the University of California will be granting bachelor’s degrees to students who have never set foot in the state of California in their entire lives. The only question is how many such students, and when UC gets there. Christopher Edley, dean of the Berkeley law school, thinks it should be more rather than less and sooner rather than later. That’s why he’s leading UC’s effort to teach more students online.
This is clearly the next big thing in online higher education. Over the last decade, for-profits like the University of Phoenix proved that a fully accredited university can enroll vast numbers of students in Web-based programs. Phoenix alone enrolled 380,000 students online last year, 70 percent more than the entire UC system, soup to nuts.
But the for-profits are expensive and have an image problem that being mocked by Jon Stewart and denounced in Congress isn’t helping. Big state university systems like UC are perfectly positioned to step into the breach. They have low prices and wide array of high-quality courses to adapt for online use. Their public mission means they’re not so exclusive that expanding will, in and of itself, irreparably harm their brand.
Unsurprisingly, Edley’s bold plan to reach students “from Kentucky to Kuala Lumpur” has garnered opposition. The thoughtful critique is that the Internet can’t replicate the intellectual and personal experience of going to college in person. That’s true (if overstated, and becoming more so as technology improves). But it’s also the wrong way to think about the issue.
The challenge isn’t to perfectly replicate the current UC experience, not all of which is ideal. The challenge is to create an educational experience that’s of high enough quality to be associated with the globally recognized academic tradition of the University of California. It can be different, as long as it’s good.
With that in mind, here’s my advice to Edley and others like him going down this road. Make UC online course really hard. Find the toughest courses in the current system and make the virtual equivalents twice as difficult. Set your academic standards at Himalayan heights. People will discount these degrees at first and question if they’re as good as a “real” UC education. Leave plenty of room for doubt.
Some might worry that this will diminish access and depress initial enrollment. But you’ve got a whole world of students to choose among and from now until forever to teach online. I suspect there are a lot of people out there–more than you think–who would relish the challenge. There are 38 million working-age adults in this country who’ve gone to college at some point in their lives but don’t have a degree to show for it. If you enrolled only the smartest 1% of them, that’d be no more than Phoenix’s online headcount today. And that’s not even counting the potential students in Kuala Lumpur.
The first movers will have a big advantage. The UC effort is being sold partly as a way to raise money for the cash-starved system. That will only work for a while–in the long run, prices will fall toward marginal cost. The state university systems that get out in front will be able to turn a profit in the short-term and use the money to transition the whole system to a more stable financial foundation. Those that lag will miss out.
“Some day,” Edley has said, “somebody is going to figure out how to do online education in the quality / elite sector. It ought to be us.” He’s right about the first part. Whether he’s right about the second will depend on whether people in California recognize the future that’s plainly before them.