I attended a dinner discussion on this topic the other night. Matt Yglesias raised two skeptical questions.

1. Since the invention of the printing press, distance learning has been feasible. At the margin, what does the Internet make possible?

On the issue of content delivery, is the Internet just an incremental improvement or is it a revolution? I guess the test is whether one superstar chemistry lecturer on line can satisfy pretty much everyone, or whether students are better motivated by a live lecturer who is not quite as good.

But I think that the real potential for the Internet is to speed up and improve the feedback loop. Married to artificial intelligence, the Internet can let you know quickly whether you are doing well, just barely keeping up, or falling behind. That could be huge. Khan understands that. Yes, the online lectures are cute, but they are only an incremental improvement. Taking advantage of AI in the feedback loop is the killer app, I think. Teaching equals feedback.

2. What is the point of reform? Right now, if an 18 year old wants to learn, what barrier is there that we need to remove?

I think our dinner discussion showed the need to think of higher education as a highly segmented market. Students differ along two dimensions. One is aptitude/desire for classroom learning. The other is primary motive for attending college.

We often think of college in terms of the elite model, where aptitude is high and the primary motive is status affirmation. In that model, the focus need not be on teaching. The high-aptitude students will (a) not be hard to teach and (b) motivate at least some professors to teach well. The main thing is that attendance at the school should serve as a status marker.

You are supposed to attend the right college today for the same reason that 150 years ago you were supposed to attend the right church or that 50 years ago you were supposed to join the right country club. Spend a moment contemplating the notion that an elite college is sort of a cross between a church and a country club.

Once you get away from the top n colleges, where n is probably between 100 and 200, you get into a tier where the natural aptitude for classroom learning is only middling. Can we lump everything below the top n into what one might call the second tier of higher education? Probably the classification should be more granular, but let me stick to just two tiers.

The primary motivation of students in the second tier is to get the credential: the teaching degree, the allied health degree, or what have you. The challenge for both students and professors is to get the students to complete their course of study. I would think that this would tend toward a competition to get away with as little rigor as possible in the process. To the extent that the credential confers automatic improvements in pay (as in many government jobs), the rigor should be driven close to zero. Only to the extent that employers demand actual substantive learning will any rigor be supported.

Getting back to Matt’s second question, I do not think that technology will remove any important barriers to an 18 year old. I am skeptical that it will achieve the lofty goals that we have for higher education–making American workers more competitive in the global market place, blah, blah, blah. If anything, I think that technology ultimately will add to the advantages of those who already have a high aptitude for learning.

I think that higher education is one of those things that we are very enchanted about, like democracy and health insurance and regulation. A more realistic appraisal might be disenchanting.

[UPDATE: In an interview, Stephen Miller says,

I’ve looked some in my own work related to the external returns of education, at different percentiles… And then at the higher and higher ends, it’s actually increasing –it’s actually increasing greatly.

Miller asks me in an email whether I think there should be a common core curriculum in higher education. Of course, I would agree with him that the answer is negative. Young people have diverse abilities and diverse needs.]