How the Internet Will Disrupt Higher Education's Most Valuable Asset: Prestige


It happened to newspapers. It happened to magazines. It happened to books. Now it’s happening to higher education: another industry thrown into turmoil and shock because its business model has been overturned by the Internet.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, the newspaper industry was just awakening to the implications of moving online. At first, those implications seemed miraculous. Newspapers were already more or less monopolies in all but a half-dozen U.S. cities. Now, some of their biggest expenses — for printing, for delivery, for the paper itself — were about to disappear.

But as newspapers put their content online, the industry changed virtually overnight from a collection of separate geographical monopolies into one giant competitive market in which every English-language outlet competed with all the others in the entire world.

Something not identical but similar is going on in the prestige corner of the higher-education industry. Start with an uncomfortable truth: The prestige of a diploma from a prestige university comes not from graduating but from getting in. Almost no one who applies to, say, Yale University is admitted, but almost everyone who gets in graduates. To maintain their prestige, these universities must limit the number of people who are admitted.

The Internet makes this harder. To take the most mundane example, the biggest lecture hall on campus may hold 900 seats. That used to put a ceiling of 900 on the number of students who can take the Great Man’s famous lecture course on Jane Austen. Now, though, many thousands can watch this lecture on video. It’s not the same? Perhaps not. But it’s awfully close. Is the difference worth $200,000? Or is most of your $200,000 for four years of college tuition actually buying something else, like status, like connections, like prestige?

As MOOCs (short — but not very — for massive open online courses) become more common, it will become easier and easier to get something awfully close to an Ivy League education through the Web, and it will be harder and harder for Yale to explain what it offers for all that money except a piece of paper that says you went to Yale. As the Internet chips away at the practical reasons for limiting the student population, the real reason Yale limits the size of its classes will become more obvious.

The analogy to newspapers isn’t perfect. Among other things, the universities have realized from the beginning that “shovelware” — just shoveling their content onto the Internet — isn’t enough. They must offer interactivity, podcasts, hyperlinks, lots of bells and whistles, including some things that probably haven’t been thought of yet.

Then there are those for-profit universities with the implausible names that advertise on television and take full advantage of email, e-textbooks, online tutoring, etc. “Southern New Hampshire University” may be no threat to Yale today, but over the next decade, one or two of these companies is bound to get good, which will further raise the question of what the point of Yale is.

We are much concerned these days, and rightly so, about inequality. And the focus is turning from economic inequality to broader social inequality. Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a column recently brandishing a study from somewhere showing — no surprise — that admission to prestigious universities is skewed to favor a self-perpetuating elite. (You know who you are.) Bruni and the report call on the United States’ elite universities to show more imagination and diversity in their admissions policies. But why reform the admissions office when you can dismantle it?

Decisions about admissions to highly selective colleges are a guess about the future: Which of these kids will turn out best under our guidance? But why guess? Why not wait a few years and see?

A 2014 report by a provost-convened committee at Columbia University declares in its introduction that the university’s “primary commitment” should be to “provide educational opportunities of the highest quality to students who meet our admissions standards.” By that measure, Columbia is deeply failing, since it provides educational opportunities of the highest quality to only a small fraction of those who meet its admissions standards.

If you take one of its courses online, Columbia may give you something it calls a “Statement of Accomplishment.” Congratulations. But don’t hold out hope for a diploma. Those are for people who really went to Columbia, if you know what I mean.