A New Kind of College Experience

The traditional campus may become a memory

When I walk across Duke’s majestic campus, I’m sometimes lulled into thinking campus-based universities, beloved for centuries, might continue forever. Duke’s beauty and dynamism make it hard to imagine that the campus model of higher education is heading into long-term decline, to the point where a generation from now it will be the exception, not the rule.

Of course, it’s often difficult to recognize the end of an era when you’re in the midst of it. We understand Duke basketball is approaching the last few years of the Coach K era, but we don’t know whether the program can sustain his excellence after he leaves. When I worked for The Washington Post years ago, it didn’t occur to me that the Internet and mobile technology would soon fundamentally disrupt the newspaper industry.

So too it may be for America’s universities, the best of which today are so sought after that wealthy parents are willing to pay millions to slip their kids in the “side door.” Yet cracks in the system’s foundation have been appearing for decades. Prices have skyrocketed: From my time at Duke to my daughter’s, the cost of attendance increased by four times the rate of inflation. Schools further down the food chain than Duke will struggle to sustain their high prices—especially given evidence that nationwide college learning outcomes haven’t improved. Just 11 percent of business leaders think recent college grads are ready for work. 

And the system is tilted sharply in favor of the wealthy. A number of well-known colleges have more students from the top one percent than from the entire bottom 50 percent. Students of modest means get relegated to schools with fewer resources and lower prestige, making it harder to climb the ladder. 

In most markets, if providers raise prices, exclude customers, and stall on quality, competitors enter. Over the years that’s been slower to happen in higher education, where a web of tradition, reputation, regulation, funding, and accreditation protects incumbents. But that’s shifting. In the 1990s, I helped start Concord Law School, the first online law school, and then Kaplan University, one of the first online universities. We aimed to take what’s best about the existing system and tailor it to working adults, stripping out extras they don’t care about (like fancy dorms). We applied emerging innovation and technology to increase quality, flexibility and outcomes each year while reducing costs. 

Back then, many were confused or horrified at the thought of an online university. An early Wall Street Journal article attempted to describe Concord Law School in the painstaking way you might explain the Super Bowl to a North Korean visitor who had never seen a television set, much less a football game or the Anheuser Busch Clydesdales. One quote dismissed online education as “an April Fool’s joke.” Others were harsher: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg gave a speech pronouncing herself “deeply troubled by ventures like Concord,” where, she said, “students learn in isolation.”

But students weren’t learning in isolation. As young people today would easily understand, they were forming different types of meaningful communities online, enabling new friendships, study groups, and faculty relationships. And both students and faculty loved it. Within a decade, Kaplan University grew into the top 10 percent of all universities nationally by enrollment. Students excelled, outperforming comparable students at traditional colleges nationally on key measures like learning outcomes, student satisfaction, graduation rates, and graduate income improvement. Employers started welcoming online grads. 

Even so, most of traditional higher education only tentatively embraced online, at least until some highly publicized courses at Stanford legitimized the market in 2011. Today, most universities offer at least some online programming. Competition accelerated last year when we sold Kaplan University to Purdue to create Purdue University Global, which instantly became one of the world’s largest public online universities. (Kaplan continues to provide non-academic support, but Purdue University governs the institution.)

While overall U.S. post-secondary enrollment is in an eight-year decline, online degree enrollments continue to grow. Already enough students are pursuing alternatives that some smaller colleges are missing enrollment targets. Some are even having to close. That trickle may become a flood in the coming years, with experts predicting as many of half of today’s 4,000 U.S. colleges might be forced to shutter in the next twenty-five years.

Why? Because even those who wouldn’t consider an online education for their kids (or themselves) today will find it difficult to resist in a decade or two. By then alternatives with comparable faculty, learning outcomes, and employment prospects will be available for less than a tenth the price of a campus education—including from highly regarded institutions like Arizona State and Purdue. That will be hard for families (and legislatures that fund public higher education) to overlook. 

This shift will be painfully transformational for many institutions, to be sure. But it will be transformational for individuals and the economy as well, in a very good way. Far more students than today will gain access to an affordable, quality higher education, leveling the economic playing field.

And what of the things we remember most about our own college experiences—the intense late-night conversations, deep friendships, and first loves? Rest easy: Future nineteen-year-olds won’t be staying home on Saturday night any more than we did. New social structures will evolve for those who don’t go to an on-campus university. The things we all recall most fondly about our college experiences will still exist, just in a different environment. 

The exact parameters will evolve over time. But it seems likely that for many, the traditional campus experience will be remembered as a quaint relic, like the morning newspaper that used to appear on our doorstep. 

 Rosen ’82 is CEO of Kaplan and author of Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy. 

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