Overselling Online Education 2.0: Comment on Carey
By Bryan Caplan
First-generation fans of online education pushed a simple story: Online education is a better, cheaper way to learn, and will therefore soon do to brick-and-mortar colleges what downloading did to the record companies. I’ve long argued that these fans are naive. The status quo doesn’t just have hundreds of billions of government subsidies on its side. It also has the power of conformity signaling to shield it from disruptive innovation.
I’m pleased to see, then, that second-generation fans of online education have arrived. Kevin Carey’s recent NYT piece explains the intellectual evolution:
Three years ago, technology was going to transform higher education. What happened?…
[E]nrollment in traditional colleges remains robust, and
undergraduates are paying higher tuition and taking out larger loans
than ever before. Universities do not seem poised to join travel agents
and video stores on the ash heap of history — at least, not yet.
failure of MOOCs to disrupt higher education has nothing to do with the
quality of the courses themselves, many of which are quite good and
getting better. Colleges are holding technology at bay because the only
thing MOOCs provide is access to world-class professors at an unbeatable
price. What they don’t offer are official college degrees, the kind
that can get you a job. And that, it turns out, is mostly what college
students are paying for.
So far, so good. But Carey remains imminently optimistic:
Now information technology is poised to transform college degrees. When
that happens, the economic foundations beneath the academy will truly
begin to tremble.
Carey’s fandom is a big improvement over first-generation fandom, but remains naive. Here’s my point-by-point critique. Carey’s in blockquotes, I’m not.
college degrees represent several different kinds of information. Elite
universities run admissions tournaments as a way of identifying the
best and the brightest. That, in itself, is valuable data. It’s why
“Harvard dropout” and “Harvard graduate” tell the job market almost
exactly the same thing: “This person was good enough to get into
No, they don’t. Degrees signal an array of traits: not just intelligence, but work ethic, conformity, and more. “Harvard dropout” tells the job market, “This person was promising enough to get into Harvard, but so lazy and/or non-conformist that he wasted this golden opportunity.”
important, traditional college degrees are deeply embedded in
government regulation and standard human resources practice. It doesn’t
matter how good a teacher you are — if you don’t have a bachelor’s
degree, it’s illegal for a public school to hire you.
A fair point, but overrated.
employers often use college degrees as a cheap and easy way to select
for certain basic attributes, mostly the discipline and wherewithal
necessary to earn 120 college credits.
Apparently “Harvard dropout” doesn’t say the same thing as “Harvard graduate” after all. In any case, Carey omits a vital “basic attribute”: conformity to social norms.
Mozilla Foundation, which brought the world the Firefox web browser,
has spent the last few years creating what it calls the Open Badges
project. Badges are electronic credentials that any organization,
collegiate or otherwise, can issue. Badges indicate specific skills and
knowledge, backed by links to electronic evidence of how and why,
exactly, the badge was earned…
most important thing about badges is that they aren’t limited to what
people learn in college. Nor are they controlled by colleges
exclusively. People learn throughout their lives, at work, at home, in
church, among their communities.
It’s very hard to see what’s revolutionary about these “badges.” Individuals and organizations have always been free to award them. See the Boy Scouts. How does switching to “electronic evidence” fundamentally improve them?
The fact that colleges currently have a
near-monopoly on degrees that lead to jobs goes a long way toward
explaining how they can continue raising prices every year.
“Near-monopoly”? Anyone is free to issue degrees. The problem is that, outside of key niche occupations, employers take traditional academic degrees much more seriously than “badges.” Why should we expect that to change?
there will be a lag between the creation of such new credentials and
their widespread acceptance by employers and government regulators. H.R.
departments know what a bachelor’s degree is. “Verified certificates”
are something new. But employers have a powerful incentive to move in
this direction: Traditional college degrees are deeply inadequate tools
for communicating information.
It depends on what information employers are looking for. In our society, traditional college degrees remain the only dependable way to communicate, “I’m a smart person who conforms to social expectations.” We can easily imagine societies that don’t work this way. But ours does.
new digital credentials can solve this problem by providing
exponentially more information. Think about all the work you did in
college. Unless you’re a recent college graduate, how much of it was
saved and archived in a way that you can access now?
Why should we believe that employers even want all these extra details? If you’ve ever been involved in hiring, the main problem is information overload: Hundreds of applicants with diverse backgrounds and talents. To be fair, Carey anticipates this objection:
does present a new challenge for employers, who will have to sift
through all this additional information. College degrees, for all of
their faults, are quick and easy to digest. Of course, processing large
amounts of information is exactly what computers are good for.
Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University are designing open badges that
are “machine discoverable,” meaning that they are designed to be found
by employers using search algorithms to locate people with specific
It’s easy to believe that Big Data hiring will slowly become more important. But why the continued assumption that employers hunger for “specific skills”? Current hiring heuristics reveal rather different motives. Sure, employers want workers with up-to-date practical experience. But employers focus at least as much on workers’ general competence and people skills.
the long run, MOOCs will most likely be seen as a crucial step forward
in the reformation of higher education. But their true impact won’t be
felt until students and learners of all kinds have access to digital
credentials that are also built for the modern world. Then they’ll be
able to acquire skills and get jobs for a fraction of what colleges cost
I wish Carey were right, but he’s not. Like his predecessors, he neglects my standing two-part critique. Namely:
1. Due to conformity signaling, the status quo has a massive built-in advantage.
2. Governments at all levels annually cement the status quo’s advantage with hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies.
If Carey or anyone else disagrees, I renew my offer to bet on the future of traditional college enrollment. Happy to update the time frame, of course.
P.S. I used to restrict my bets to people with some cyber-reputation to lose. But now I’m happy to bet anyone, anywhere who trusts me. The system: When the bet starts, PayPal me whatever you owe me if you lose. If you win, I refund your money + whatever I owe you + some interest if you like.