Technology and the Disruption of Higher Education

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Henry C. Lucas, Jr. Technology and the Disruption of Higher Education. Hackensack, New Jersey: World Scientific, 2016.

My interest in this book grew out of my reflections on the previous book, Frey’s The Technology TrapSeveral of my conclusions were particularly relevant to education:

  1. The jobs that are most vulnerable to being replaced by new technologies are manufacturing and low-wage service jobs.
  2. The jobs most likely to be created or enhanced by technology will be in skilled services.
  3. The economic importance of education is increasing, as the pay gap widens between workers with different levels of education.
  4. Public investments in education can contribute to a thriving economy in several ways: creating good jobs in education, qualifying workers for good jobs generally, and strengthening democracy because successful workers are more politically active and less alienated.

These conclusions lead to the next question: Is an expansion of education feasible? Can we do all these things at once–provide more education to more people, maintain and even improve educational quality, and keep the costs from becoming prohibitive?

Problems of higher education

The story of higher education in the United States is a story of many successes but also many challenges. One third of the adult population now has a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s better than ever before, but still only a minority.

The most obvious problem is the high cost of college, which has been rising much faster than the general rate of inflation. “The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that from 1978 to 2014, the price index for college tuition rose nearly 1200%, whereas consumer prices rose less than 300%.” David Brooks has just written a column criticizing the “exclusive meritocracy” of “super-elite” universities, and warning that “if the country doesn’t radically expand its institutions and open access to its bounty, the U.S. will continue to rip apart.”

Higher education exists in a kind of gray area between a luxury and a necessity. Going to college is more common than buying a yacht, but less common than buying an automobile or obtaining health insurance. State support for higher education has been falling for some time, especially since the last recession. Lucas reports, “At an aggregate level, in 2013 states were spending 28% less per student on higher education than in 2008.”

Many colleges are in a financial squeeze, experiencing pressure to cut costs, but also under pressure to compete for the students who can afford to pay a high cost. Often they attract them by building fancier buildings and offering new amenities and support services that keep costs high. Lucas found that in nonprofit colleges, “non-faculty professional staff grew at sixteen times the rate of tenured and tenure-track faculty from 1975 to 2011!”

Those who do go to college graduate with more debt than ever before. “Some economists worry that it is a drag on the economy because they fear that recent graduates are not buying things like houses because they are too concerned with paying down their college debts.” Lucas sees an even bigger problem in the college dropouts who take on debt without finishing their degrees. They usually end up earning no more than other high school grads.

In addition to cost concerns, critics complain that undergraduates are being educationally shortchanged, as colleges save money by increasing the size of classes and relying on more part-time instructors and non-PhDs to teach them. According to Robert Samuels in Why Public Education Should Be Free, only about one-third of undergraduate classes are taught by traditional tenure-track faculty. Another common complaint is that too many classes place higher value on student recall of lecture material than on critical thinking skills. According to Lucas, “The Internet has not eliminated the need for people to have a knowledge base of facts, but it may have changed the nature of what is in that base and the amount of factual information that is necessary to recall on demand.”

The technological potential

Lucas sees several positive potentials of new technologies:

  • to get students “more actively engaged in their education rather than passively watching an instructor lecture”
  • to “reach students who are unable to a come to a physical campus”
  • to provide “instruction for underserved populations and countries”

Lucas is hardly a naive technology enthusiast, however. He devotes considerable attention to the challenges involved in maintaining quality and controlling costs as the technological revolution proceeds. Those will be the subjects of the next post.


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