The Great Divergence

Online Learning Might Challenge Rising Tuition
New books dissected over email.
April 26 2012 6:45 AM

The Great Divergence

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Will online learning challenge the tuition spikes at universities?

College students on campus.
College students on campus.

By Ferran Traite Soler/iStockphoto.

Tim,

My first impulse was to defend the honor of conservative non-denunciations of the president’s plan by saying he’s not proposing tuition caps—he’s just proposing to limit what schools can do while enjoying generous federal subsidies. But then I remembered that this was precisely the issue in the administration’s controversial efforts to regulate the for-profit college sector. So maybe it really just is rank hypocrisy. Certainly I’ve started to get the sense that culture-war politics is becoming an economic danger, preventing people from thinking straight about the value of college education.

You say prediction is a mug’s game, but before we impose price controls on college tuition, I’d like to know what the consequences would be. It seems to me that top schools might simply wink and nudge and admit students whose parents are likely to “donate” money in excess of formal tuition. After all, even today the most inegalitarian feature of the higher-education system is the admissions process. The most selective schools overwhelmingly accept students from wealthier families, and these institutions that are dedicating themselves to the least-needy get the most funding. That’s true of the fancy private schools, but it’s also true in state university systems, where flagship campuses serving a relatively exclusive clientele get more taxpayer dollars than their humbler colleagues.

The Great Divergence, by Timothy Noah.
The Great Divergence, by Timothy Noah.

I won’t try to draw you into any further futurism, but it does strike me that the growth of online learning tools means that a disciplined and self-motivated person now has an enormous ability to learn for little or no money. Of course “disciplined and self-motivated” doesn’t describe your average teenager, so this only gets us so far, but I have to believe it’ll play some role in the future of higher education. But trying to think about the education piece of the puzzle does bring me back to the question of the 99 percent versus 1 percent framing of Occupy Wall Street. The real losers in your plan—and really any plan to restrain the growth in college costs—would be college administrators and tenure-track faculty. These are hardly the wretched of the earth, but also not necessarily the fabled financial elite. I was happy to see OWS shine the spotlight on inequality, but that particular construction of the issue may be too constraining to tackle many serious issues.

Thanks for joining me for this discussion, Tim. Last thoughts?

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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