A university education is like the Super Bowl – you can see it live or on TV

by Grace

Three perspectives on the future of higher education from Vivek Wadhwa, Peter Thiel, and Lawrence Summers

College will be “free” in a few years, according to Vivek Wadhwa, tech entrepreneur and academic who serves as a vice president at the decidedly non-traditional Singularity University.

Wadhwa has unwavering faith in the power of technology to fix much of what is wrong with the world, and he believes that online courses will revolutionize higher education and cut the cost to near zero for most students over the next decade….

Yet if Wadhwa is right the student debt problem will take care of itself—at least as it relates to the next generation and those that follow. Online courses will proliferate to such a degree that acquiring knowledge will become totally free. There will still be a cost associated with getting a formal degree. But most universities, he says, “will be in the accreditation business.” They will monitor and sanction coursework; teachers will become mentors and guides, not deliver lectures and administer tests. This model has the potential to dramatically cut the cost of an education and virtually eliminate the need to borrow for one, he says.

Peter Thiel thinks skipping college altogether is often a better option.

Thiel has gotten a lot of attention for his view that higher education is broken, and that many kids would be better off saving their money and going straight from high school into a trade or developing a business. His “20 under 20” fellowship grants high school graduates with a sound business idea $100,000 if they agree to skip college and go right to work on their idea.

Lawrence Summers stresses the “value of the total university experience”.  I like his Super Bowl analogy.

There is a reason that people pay a lot of money to go to an event like the Super Bowl when it is free on TV, Summers offers. They get more out of it by being present. Something similar is true of an on-campus education, where you may attend extra-curricular events and engage more fully with faculty and other students.

All three – Wadhwa, Thiel, and Summers – see a place in the future for the traditional university experience.  But there seems to be agreement that high costs will make that a shrinking segment of higher education.  An open question is whether this will create a widening gap between the elites with traditional degrees and others with “cheap” online degrees.

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