This Is the End


Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

January 15, 2013

Why College: Learn, Signal, Network, Party

An article today in the New York Times discusses the growth of on-line courses, and the plan by the California higher education system to integrate some of these courses into the brick and mortar curriculum. On-line courses allow students around the globe to experience the same courses, taught by the same, world-renowned professors, as those who have jumped the hurdle to get into prestigious universities and paid $40,000 a year to study there.

In some cases it is even better than physically sitting in the real lecture. A friend of mine who teaches a popular MBA class at Harvard gave a set of his lectures for one of these programs. He was set up in a lecture hall-turned production studio, complete with a set of bright-eyed students. (The bright-eyed students – models hired by the company to give the ambience of a classroom). The end result has the production quality of an HBO series. It was watched by over 150,000 students in the first few months after its release, compared to under a thousand a year at Harvard – and at Harvard, the class is oversubscribed.

For the technical subjects like computer science, or, for that matter, accounting, the on-line programs may have a shot at competing with what you get in the brick and mortar world. Beyond the lectures, which you can capture as well on-line as in the lecture hall (where the class size is so large that direct interaction with the professor is all but impossible), most of the learning in computer science comes from interaction with the computer, with other students, and with instructors in small study sessions. The various on-line programs are creating solutions to allow learning through all of these channels.

If on-line programs end up developing to prepare students as well as the college classroom does, will they supplant enough of the function of the university to have a material effect on college-level education? Will they affect the limitations that arise from the tight admissions and hefty price tags for the top-tier schools? Will they shutter lower-tier schools? That is going to be a big area of debate for the next decade as these on-line programs develop and refine themselves, and as we see the quality of the product that emerges.

I want to as the next question: If it does as well in teaching what a student needs to know for these technical fields, or, for that matter if it does it even better -- we have to admit that as a possibility as well-- what else remains of the college experience that it fails to replicate? I think the U.S. college system is founded on four objectives: Learn, signal, network, and party. Once we have learning out of the way, what becomes of the other three?

One thing you do not get if you take Stanford classes on-line that you do get if you graduate from Stanford, even if you master the material just as well, is a Stanford degree. And the value of that degree is as a signal to the job market that you are smart – though what it should signal is something more modest, which is that you did very well in high school – and that you are well trained. This signal is missing for those who do the courses on-line.

But what is the value of the signaling? It is not very valuable if either, a) there is a low-cost, accurate method to gauge ability before hiring, or b) it takes time to gauge ability, but the employee is earning his keep while that ability is assessed.

The first approach works for many technical fields, especially when it comes to computer science. Set someone down to write a few programs and it quickly becomes evident whether they really know what they are doing. Throw in some math problems to verify that they really know their differential equations (though why anyone cares at this point is a bit of a mystery to me). And maybe add in some brain teasers for fun. Granted it is not perfect, but neither is the signal coming from where you graduated and your GPA.

Perhaps this process will become institutionalized, for example by allowing students in the on-line courses to take the same tests as the brick and mortar students in a controlled, verifiable setting. If you studied the same thing and did as well on the tests, then why should an employer care about the technicalities of the degree? What if they can get the on-line student on board for a few thousand dollars less? If it turns out that the market prices the difference at, say, $10,000 a year, and if after a few years the work history dominates the degree in assessing your future, then the $160,000 extra investment does not look too good.

The second approach, used in less technical fields like the entertainment industry, is to let graduates do apprenticeships where the cost of hiring and firing is low. A Harvard degree might give a bit of an edge for this sort of a job, but it is not a guarantee someone will have the difficult-to-define abilities for the job. So the entry hurdle is low, undergraduates from all over can get low-paying or non-paying work doing menial but useful tasks, and over the course of what might be several years they are either moved up the entry-level ladder or are weeded out. The proliferation of internships we have seen over the past few years might be a cyclical phenomenon resulting from the poor job market, but it also might be an emerging structural part of the post-college employment process, to some extent supplanting the college's signaling function. Although this has not been the model for technical fields, it could provide a second approach to deal with the noisier signals that come from the on-line programs.

A century ago, or even less, the old college tie and the old boy network were the main take-aways from the college years. Even today, the network with other students might be the most valuable part of a top-tier MBA. And no doubt it is also valuable in a technical field. But networking now has a life of its own. Supported by the machinery of social networks, on-line programs are already working on building these networks, ones that can be far more extensive than within any university. And when it comes to technical areas – and for that matter, even in non-technical areas – networking and interacting virtually is pretty much the way things go even with the student sitting three seats away in the real classroom.

Once you take the learning, signaling and networking out of the picture, what is left? Well, it might be what, in reality, is the largest component of what goes on in our undergraduate system: taking four years off to have a good time. For many students, the history and English classes are the dues they have to pay.

I think you could pull out half of those who go to college, put some of them into a year or two of vocational training (on-line or not), put others directly into the workplace in an apprenticeship or internship, and see a positive effect for the economy. So although partying is the one aspect of the college experience that cannot be replicated by an on-line higher education, that will be a net gain to society.

Note: One obvious caveat in all of this is that although on-line courses have a good shot with technical subjects, for liberal arts and humanities the task is more difficult. These require small group discussions and intense interaction with the professor. I think for those who seek such an education, the model also is different from that of the large real universities. To my mind, the model is that of any of a few dozen small liberal art colleges with an interactive and focused curriculum.