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Disrupting College

In their current issue, Washington Monthly has an interesting article about one vision of the future of a college education.

The article profiles a company called StraighterLine that is using a Netflix model to offer all-you-can-handle online courses for only $99 a month.

According to the writer, this is just part of the overall trend in our society.

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries–automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

However, at the same time college expenses are rising at far more than the rate of inflation, the institutions often short change students taking lower level courses, the primary target of StraighterLine.

But the biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall. Subtract the cost of paying a beleaguered adjunct lecturer or graduate student to teach the course. There’s a lot left over. That money is used to subsidize everything else.

This should all sound very familiar if you’ve read Disrupting Class.

In that book, the authors start with the theory that industries are disrupted when small, upstart companies find innovative ways to offer their core business faster, easier, cheaper.

They predict that companies like StraighterLine will do the same thing for (to?) American education, especially higher education but eventually including parts of K12.

However, since I learned more outside of classes during my undergraduate years than I did in them, I’m not buying everything in either the article or the book.

Of course, it all depends on what you’re looking for from a college education.

If all a person needs is the information and credits, $99 a month and working entirely online is certainly a good way to go.


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  1. I think this is probably right on track, actually. Unfortunately.

    A lot of boarding schools and colleges and universities have spent a lot of money building exquisite student housing. The purpose of that housing is to put freshmen into dormitories. Many upperclassmen will move off campus, paying tuition but not boarding costs, unless the housing is really-really good.

    But information is increasingly free. The whole corpus of classical literature is available online; my core subject matter is available to anyone who wants to read it. The explicators of those text at the collegiate level are putting their courses and coursework online. Eventually I may have to do the same in order to remain competitive as a teacher. Once that occurs, who will pay me for that knowledge? It will already be free, and quite possibly someone other than my employer will monetize it in some fashion.

  2. Once that content leaves my sphere of control, I may get paid for it. More likely, I won’t. As Captain Malcolm Reynolds put it in the TV show, FIREFLY, I’ve got a powerful need to eat sometime this month.

    But why pay $10-20,000 a year for college, or to a boarding school, if you can earn the same credits for $200 a year, and do the work online? This will hit colleges (and boarding schools) like the debt for a dormitory built two years ago on pledged (rather than paid) money.

    Teachers are going to have to figure out how to offer something more in person than their students can get online. And figuring out how to bring high-quality interaction to face-time is increasingly important.

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