The End of Western Civilization as We Know It

Over the past couple of years I’ve written a number of posts in which I wrestle with what technological change means for the future of higher education, general education, and history education specifically. Much of my speculating and ranting in these posts has centered on what seems to me to be a clash between the traditional methods by which knowledge is delivered to students (curriculum, teaching) and the world that our students live in (tech-centric, socially networked, etc.).

An article in the March issue of Wired by Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson (Mr. Long Tail) caught my attention because Anderson’s argument dovetailed so nicely with what I’ve been trying to articulate for a while. In the piece (“Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business”), Anderson argues that the “free economy” of the Internet has already transformed the way that business is done globally (but especially in the U.S.) and that to deny the impact of “free” on consumer behavior is to deny the reality in front of your face.

Case in point: Google provides all of its services for free and the last time I looked Google was a profitable company.

Bands give away their music. Yahoo! now provides infinite email storage. And lots of other businesses are in what Anderson terms the “race to the bottom.” For instance, you can fly from London to Barcelona on RyanAir for $20 despite the fact that it costs the airline $70 to get you there. All of these businesses are, at last check, making money.

In its usual way, higher education is attempting to prove the market wrong. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over the past 30 years the average cost to attend an American college or university has increased by 543% and by 59% in the past ten years (from $9,206 to $14,629). Although private institutions have gotten the lion’s share of the bad press for raising their prices aggressively over the past ten years, price increases (on a percentage basis) at public institutions were actually greater over the past ten years.

How long can colleges and universities ignore what is happening in the larger economy around them? Because they have built such powerful brands and sell an intangible future benefit that study after study shows is worth its price over time, I think you might be right if your first reaction was “quite a long time.”

But already we are seeing cracks in the model that has sustained prices in higher education for so long. And I think that these examples portend a change in the way higher education does business. Before you object that higher education is not a “business”, I’ll just throw out the fact that according to the 2002 Economic Census, educational services in the United States accounted for more than $30 billion in receipts, employing more than 430,000 people.

Because this post has gone on long enough, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out more. But fear not, tomorrow’s post will be free. I promise.

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