Colleges Still Cutting Down the Net

The current NCAA basketball tournaments (my Lady Owls upset the Santa Barbara Gauchos in the first round) got me thinking of how the Internet is changing, and will change, college education.

One of the biggest curiosities of our time is the (so far successful) resistance of higher education to the demands of the Internet.

Nearly all college campuses are heavily wired. From any classroom, lab, library or dorm, students can reach any Internet site in a heartbeat. Some schools require the purchase of specific laptops, while most merely encourage that kids get the best deal.

From all this they learn that knowledge the product colleges sell can mostly be found at the click of a mouse. The social aspects of college the interactions with professors and other students are useful and fun. But the process of learning has changed forever, and when you graduate today you take the library with you.

What have colleges done with this? Mostly, they’ve done nothing. They see the Net as another cost of doing business, to get piled on top of other costs, and they have raised prices. The gross inefficiencies of college education the fancy offices, the repetitive in-person lectures, and the spacious statuary-filled grounds remain unchanged.

For years there have been idealists looking to create competition for this system. For-profit colleges like DeVry, cable-based plants like the Jones Education Co., and even web-based operators like the University of Phoenix have done well with adults and in technical education. If you want a real sheepskin, however, with a name worth noticing, you’re stuck in the system.

While waiting for a name institution any name institution to break ranks and offer accredited, online education, a few entrepreneurs have gotten impatient.

Michael Saylor of MicroStrategy told The New York Times he’ll spend $100 million of his newly minted $11.7 billion stock fortune on a “free university” featuring taped lectures from folks like Warren Buffett. Michael Milken is backing Unext, which in turn has launched Cardean University, designed to bring brand-name curriculum from Stanford, the University of Chicago, and other institutions online. There are even several attempts being made to connect education directly with commerce, as at “schools” like notHarvard and Learn2.com.

So far, however, the only real institution to confer real degrees online is tiny Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina. No offense, but if you have two resumes in front of you, one from a Yale grad and the other from a Limestone grad, which one are you going to pick up first?

No, brand sells education services, and no matter how big the price advantage for the online version, few people are sending the little darlings to their rooms for college. Online education will remain a province of motivated adults and brand-unconscious technical students, until a brand-name institution decides to break ranks and offer a reasonable facsimile of its product that can be obtained mostly online.

But when one does, watch out. The gains from that will make the takings from the tournaments look like chicken feed.

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