Finished Kevin Carey’s The End of College.  My verdict: Wrong but beautiful.  Wrong, because brick-and-mortar college isn’t “ending” in our lifetimes.  Beautiful, because Carey makes us stop taking online education for granted, and feel the awe this historic achievement deserves.

I’ve already explained why Carey’s wrong about the prognosis for higher education.  I’ll bet on it.  Online education primarily competes with blogs, not colleges.  I was pleased, however, that Carey shines a spotlight on the subsidies the status quo enjoys:

When it comes to teaching, colleges and universities do not want to be more productive, and will do whatever they can to avoid such a fate.

The question is why, unlike newspapers, travel agencies, record labels, and countless other industries, they were able to get away with it.  The answer lies with public subsidies and regulations.  The higher-education industry receives hundreds of billions of dollars every year in the form of direct appropriations, tax preferences (Harvard pays no taxes on its $33 billion endowment), and subsidies for their customers in the form of government scholarships and guaranteed student loans.  The only way to get that money is to be an accredited college.  And the accreditation system is controlled by the existing colleges themselves, who set the standards for which organizations are eligible for public funds.  Those standards typically include things like hiring faculty who have degrees from an existing college and constructing a library full of books.  It’s like a world where Craigslist needs the local newspaper’s permission to give online classified ads away for free, or Honda has to build cars exactly like GM.

I don’t think subsidies are the sole cause of lock-in; I also blame conformity signaling.  But I’m delighted that Carey is calling shenanigans on taxpayer support for the status quo.  (If he expands his critique to government support for K-12 education, I’ll be ecstatic).

What’s so beautiful about Carey’s vision?  Because he loves education the way it should be loved – and realizes that online education is far more lovable than conventional education.

But liberal education?  If you take its meaning at all seriously, liberal education is the work of a lifetime.


The current higher-education business model consists of charging students and their parents a great deal of money for a short amount of time and then maintaining an ongoing relationship based on youthful nostalgia, tribal loyalty, professional sports entertainment, and occasional begging for donations…

To prosper, colleges need to become more like cathedrals.  They need to build beautiful places, real and virtual, that learners return to throughout their lives.  They need to create authentic human communities and form relationships with people based on the never-ending project of learning… The idea of “applying to” and “graduating from” colleges won’t make as much sense in the future.  People will join colleges and other learning organizations for as long or as little time as they need.

Large numbers of learners make this possible.  When you talk to professors teaching MOOCs, none of them say they’re doing it to make a lot of money or advance their careers.  Instead, they’re thrilled by the prospect of reaching tens of thousands of people all over the world who want to learn, of seeing how their ideas resonate in different cultural contexts, of experimenting in ways that were never possible before the advent of technology. 

Amen!  Sadly, though, only a handful of nerds sincerely seek “liberal education.”  5% of college students, tops – even at the best schools in the world.  The rest is Social Desirability Bias and careerism.