Five years ago, I laughed at Alex Tabarrok for worrying that online instruction would put traditional colleges – and traditional professors like us – out of business.  He’s still worried:

[U]niversities will move to a superstar market for teachers in which the
very best teachers use on-line instruction and TAs to teach thousands
of students at many different universities.  The full online model is
not here yet but I see an increasing amount of evidence for the
superstar model of teaching.


It’s true that the university equilibrium has lasted a long time but that doesn’t mean it can’t break down very quickly.

I  don’t rule out marginal changes, but Alex is being paranoid.  What makes me so sure?  Simple: If he were right, then videotape would have put college professors out of business thirty years ago!  It’s been technologically feasible for all students to learn from superstar teachers for decades.  A little has happened at the margin.  But not much.  (And if you think online instruction is much closer than VHS to a real classroom experience because faculty-student interaction is important, remember how often professors lecture to classes of hundreds of students, only a tiny handful of whom participate).

Alex admits that “measurement” and “prestige” problems are holding back online instruction, but suggests that these barriers will soon be overcome:

But how long can we expect the inability to measure to protect academia
when there are big profits to be made?  Robin Hanson would argue that
most of what is going on is signaling, i.e. that prestige is
what is being bought and sold and not prestige as a proxy for some
other measure of quality.  No doubt there is some truth to that but
there are plenty of fields, dentistry, engineering, computer science
where measurable quality matters as well.

Alex doesn’t consider what I’ll call the Weirdo/Loser problem.  Suppose you’re an employer, and you’re trying to decide who to interview.  What do you think when you see that a seemingly capable candidate “went” to the University of Phoenix?  Maybe you’ll still give him a chance.  If you need someone good, however, you’ll almost certainly ask yourself, “If he’s really so good, why didn’t he just go to a regular university?  What’s his problem?  Is he weird, lazy, or what?”  Then you’ll throw his resume in the trash.

When Alex started worrying about the competition of online instruction, I asked him: “How would you react if your son told you he wanted to ‘go’ to the University of Phoenix?”   Unless my memory fails me, Alex didn’t deny that he’d strongly discourage him.  Why?  Because Alex knew that his son would be closing a lot of doors for himself.  I’m confident that most parents of kids who can get into traditional colleges would have the same reaction.  As long as they do, traditional colleges will not just survive, but thrive, because college attendance will remain a powerful signal that you’re not a weirdo or a loser.

Let me conclude with a bet.  I bet at even odds that 10 years from now, the fraction of American 18-24 year-olds enrolled in traditional four-year colleges will be no more than 10% (not 10 percentage-points!) lower than it is today.  If Alex really believes that a sudden breakdown in the university equilibrium is reasonably likely, he should take my bet.  Will he?