This Expert Explains How Colleges are Slowly Destroying Themselves

March 5th 2015

Dina Gachman

The cost of tuition is ballooning, students are defaulting on their loans, and for-profit colleges like Corinthian College are starting to crumble, so it’s about time to revamp the high-cost system of higher education. “The story of higher education’s future is a tale of ancient institutions in their last days of decadence,” writes author Kevin Carey in his upcoming book The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. “Colleges are taking existing inequality and making it worse.”

Carey’s book is an important one, and it explores ideas like the “University of Everywhere,” in which information technology can radically transform how we learn, how much we pay, and who has access to education. Carey, who works for the think tank New America, where he serves as Director, Education Policy Program, clearly has a passion for the topic. According to his book, U.S. universities and colleges are operating as antiquated systems, and now is the time to push for change. “Hybrid universities have been ripping off parents and students for decades by shortchanging undergraduate learning,” Carey writes. He’s by no means anti-college, but he is passionately pro reform.

Kevin Carey - End of College

I talked to Carey about the idea of colleges becoming a luxury item, how technology can revolutionize the university experience, and what the future holds.

ATTN: In the book you talk about the idea of the “University of Everywhere” and the fact that virtual classrooms could replace traditional college classrooms. But what about the social aspects of college? I don’t mean frat parties, but collaboration and social skills?

Carey: One misconception about the future of education is that everyone is going to be alone in front of a computer. I don’t think that’s the future at all. I think people learn best when they live among other learners. Some people will learn online because they have jobs or families, or they live in a rural area where they can’t be near a college. To me the future will be a combination.

ATTN: And how do you see technology and the idea of the University of Everywhere impacting the cost of college?

Carey: I think there’s no reason that an undergraduate education should have to be god-awful expensive. You can provide a world-class education with all the research that’s available right now for much less than $20-, $30-, $60,000 a year or more. We now live in a world where the only way you can get a job that will allow you to earn a middle-income lifestyle is to have some kind of post-secondary credential. So people are stuck between the demands of the job market on the one hand and the fact that college is becoming more expensive on the other hand. Traditional colleges just have not used information technology to become less expensive. They’ve used it; it’s not as if there aren’t computers. Everything else we do with computers has become less expensive, and somehow with college it’s the only thing that costs more.

ATTN: You also talk about the “Absolute Rolex Plan,” and the phenomenon of U.S. colleges becoming almost like a luxury good, with George Washington University as the specific example. What would you say to parents and students who are obsessed with getting into Harvard or Yale or Princeton?

Carey: There are a relatively small number of very exclusive colleges in the United States where just the name brand alone may make it worth it to go there. If you can get into Harvard, you should probably go. What you don’t want to do is pay Harvard tuition for some place that isn’t Harvard, but wants to be. There are a lot of places out there, particularly the private colleges and universities that will charge $50,000 or $60,000, where you don’t have the brand recognition or the same access to professors. More people are getting graduate degrees before they get jobs these days, and graduate degrees are expensive no matter where you go. If you just want to have a coming-of-age experience of going to college and experimenting with different kinds of classes, you can do that in a good public university and save your money for graduate school.

ATTN: You say in the book that when you were in college, no one really talked about student loans. So what made you such a passionate advocate for education reform?
I work for the think tank New America, and all I do is think about how education can work better and become more affordable and more effective. So I’d already been thinking about it, and then I had a child. As soon as your kid is born the clock starts to tick as a parent and you think, ‘Eighteen years from now I’m going to have to come up with a bunch of money to send my daughter to college.’ That’s what we’ve told parents: You have to get your kid into a good college and you have to pay for it. It’s a tremendous source of anxiety for a lot of parents. My daughter is four-and-a-half now, so if current trends continue, by the time she turns eighteen it’ll cost probably $120,000 in today’s dollars to send her to a public university and well over $200,000 to go to a private university. That’s a lot of money. People are trying to save but they’re also trying to save for retirement, and the job market hasn’t been kind to a lot of people over the last ten years. So these trends can’t continue, both mathematically and morally. Fortunately information technology provides some answers where we can think about different economic models with no sacrifice to the quality of education.

ATTN: Have you experienced any resistance or pushback because of the things you’re saying in the book?

Carey: All the things that I say in the book about how undergraduate education is subordinated to research – these are things that everyone knows inside the academy, and they’re things people inside the academy would like to change. I think universities and colleges are almost overwhelmingly run by well-meaning people who want to do right by the students they enroll, but they are caught within a system that creates certain, very strong incentives to act and behave in certain ways. It’s the system that needs to change, and it needs to change by providing for new kinds of organizations to be created. One of the strange things about living in American society is that we’re a very dynamic society, we’re always creating new sectors and new industries, but the vast majority of college students are attending a college that was created a long time ago. All organizations settle into their foundations and it’s very hard to change them.

ATTN: They’re set in their ways.

Carey: I think a lot of our colleges and universities are very settled and they have a very advantaged position in our society. They are the only organizations that are allowed to sell these increasingly valuable credentials that everybody wants. They may know that they need to change, but they don’t really need to change. Normally organizations only change if they need to.

ATTN: You give some good advice towards the end of the book about choosing the right school, applying for school, and telling people to “put down the bong and get to work.” What would you say to people who are thinking of going to school for a so-called risky career – say, anything in the arts.

Carey: It depends an awful lot on the subject matter. If you want to study modern dance, you probably still need to go somewhere where there are people who will teach you in person. If you want to get a business degree I think it’s a very different equation. I would be wary of some of the for-profit art colleges, which are enormously expensive and are happy to help you fill out the paperwork to borrow a lot of money, and aren’t doing anything to help you pay that money back. I would take a close look at some of the statistics you can find from the Department of Education that show how many people who borrowed money to go to colleges default on those loans. That’s public information; you can find it for any college or university in America. If it’s over about five percent, you should be wary.

ATTN: What do you hope the book accomplishes? Are there any concrete goals you have in mind?

Carey: I would like people to have a broader perspective on what colleges can be. I would like people to have higher expectations for what colleges ought to provide, both from an affordability standpoint and from an educational standpoint. The colleges that we have now were pretty much designed in the late nineteenth century. It’s a peculiar mix of research and teaching and job training, all kind of scrunched together in one unwieldy institution that has become increasingly expensive. Because they’re so embedded in our culture, we assume college can only be that kind of place, and I think that’s not true. I think the information technology revolution has broadened our horizons in terms of how we can learn, how we can connect, what kind of communities we can form, and how much things need to cost. It has changed so many parts of society and I think it can and should change college.