| January 2, 2012

Change is coming to Higher Ed

I suspect the well-established, profitable horse-and-buggy industry paid little attention to this fellow Henry Ford, tinkering in his little shop. And oftentimes it seems that officials in Oklahoma’s higher-education system are similarly obtuse, thinking the status quo can last forever.

It can’t, and it won’t. “Dramatic change is going to transform higher education over the next few decades,” as the microchip and bandwidth continue to force the kinds of reform that an ossified Higher Ed establishment never would have imposed upon itself. “I’m just waiting for a Wikipedia University, with high-quality, online, open-source courses provided by a variety of different people,” economist Richard Vedder told The New York Times. “Or the moment when someone like Bill Gates creates Superstar University, finding the best professors for the 200 courses that a good liberal arts college offers, and paying them $25,000 each to put their classes online.”

That’s all well and good, but the key to it all—and this is the one word status-quo bureaucrats should fear the most—is credentialing. If a third-party credential can guarantee that these students actually know stuff—something a bachelor’s degree no longer guarantees—the status quo will rapidly lose its status.

“Millions of learners have enjoyed the free lecture videos and other course materials published online through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare project,” Marc Parry reports in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Now MIT plans to release a fresh batch of open online courses—and, for the first time, to offer certificates to outside students who complete them.” Sal Khan (his Khan Academy had 4 million unique visits in November) is also talking about credentialing.

As Higher Ed continues to change, Oklahoma policymakers will take note. Policymaking, like economics, is all about the allocation of limited resources that have alternative uses. Oklahoma’s center-right policymakers will soon discover there are better uses of taxpayer money (Higher Ed vouchers come to mind) than to subsidize a “Basic College Reading” course—the goal of which “is to read at or above the 8th grade level”—or to pay a third of a million dollars to a president overseeing a four-year university from which only six percent of the students graduate in four years.

Taxpayers deserve better. And thanks to the creative destruction of the free-enterprise system, they may soon get it.

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