Is there a bubble in higher education?

Glenn H. Reynolds, a professor at the University of Tennessee, argues that the country is afflicted with a “bubble” in higher education, with students who chase degrees ending up with unsustainable debt. He predicts that fundamental change is on the horizon:

My question is whether traditional academic institutions will be able to keep up with the times, or whether — as Anya Kamenetz suggests in her new book, “DIY U” — the real pioneering will be in online education and the work of “edupunks” who are more interested in finding new ways of teaching and learning than in protecting existing interests.

He concludes that today’s traditional institutions won’t be up to the task, which is in keeping with the theory of disruptive innovation that Harvard professor Clayton Christensen has applied to K-12 education.

And it looks like disruption may be hitting the world of higher education in a major way, with the country’s largest private-sector employer–Wal-Mart–hooking up with a for-profit university in a way that lets its employees get a degree through online learning. Employees will get a 15% discount on tuition at American Public University, and Wal-Mart will provide some tuition assistance. The goal, as the New York Times puts it, is “to help employees get more education and to build a better work force.”

A friend of mine, a university professor in the Midwest, said: “I find it very interesting that Wal Mart chose to team with a for-profit university to train its employees rather than a typical bricks-and-mortar non-profit university. And notice that Wal Mart has no interest in having its people trained in any ‘studies’ discipline.”

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