The most notorious oracle who predicted the coming death spiral of academia was the late Harvard University professor Clayton Christensen, who famously predicted in 2011 that “50 percent of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years will”. His prophecy was based on the notion that digital alternatives to classroom instruction — much cheaper and friendlier than traditional instruction, in his view — would convince millions of college students to ditch old campuses in favor of earning degrees online instead.
A year earlier, computer scientist Sebastien Thrun of Stanford University, co-founder of commercial MOOC provider Udacity, had outdone Christiansen by predicting an even bleaker future for face-to-face teaching, claiming that 50 years from now, streaming lectures will undermine conventional higher education just as much 10 US colleges remain.
Even Microsoft’s Bill Gates predicted that online education would undermine the foundations of US colleges and completely destabilize the university.
But instead of landing a crushing blow, the exact opposite happened.
The high-tech high priests spoke, but they were wrong. Digital innovation has not brought traditional higher education to its knees. Instead, it has played a key role in survival. Not a single university went under completely due to digital competition.
And think about what would have happened to colleges during the pandemic if they couldn’t switch to online teaching?
“Bottom line, distance learning in higher education has avoided total disaster,” said Michael Goldstein, chief executive officer at Tyton Partners, an investment banking and higher education advisory firm. “During the pandemic, digital education has allowed students to continue their education almost entirely uninterrupted, faculty to remain largely employed, and institutions to continue operations — and, remarkably, sustained most of their academic revenue streams.”
“If it weren’t for a fairly ubiquitous digital infrastructure prior to the pandemic,” Goldstein continued, “it wouldn’t have been possible for online to ramp up so seamlessly, with classes lined up like ‘Hollywood Squares.'”
The tumbling cascade of brick-and-mortar colleges never happened. Fewer than 90 colleges have gone under in recent years, more likely in part as a result of the pressures of COVID-19 than death from digital disruption. And a third of those are for-profit companies that were already under years of stress prior to the pandemic.
Colleges are under a lot of stress, but competition from online alternatives to traditional campuses is at the bottom of the list of stresses. Bigger forces are declining high school graduation rates, particularly in New England and the Midwest, and cuts in state funding in many regions. While the pandemic has hit colleges very hard, it has also fueled the growth in the number of students enrolled exclusively in distance learning.
Unlike the newspaper industry, which has suffered from internet outages and has shut down thousands of local newspapers over the past few decades, colleges and universities have slowly adapted to the virtual revolution by stealthily infiltrating online courses and degrees. A recent review of the Department of Education’s integrated post-secondary education data system revealed the surprising new finding that even before the pandemic, more than half of college students in the United States were enrolled in at least one online class. The largest universities in the US – Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire – each report more than 100,000 enrollments, mostly online.
Widespread faculty opposition to digital education over the years hasn’t stopped distance learning from catching on. As the digital revolution swept into the nation’s cultural and commercial spheres, virtual versions of previous Industrial Age products split off and often overthrew them. But the university left the lights on in old lecture halls and left the windows open to let in digital clouds. Luckily, as the internet shattered the world economy, the university kept teaching in analog and digital classrooms side by side.
Perhaps the most telling recent data shows that the current decline in the tertiary-educated student population would be far more severe without online enrollment. As the chart below, created by insightful edtech consultant Phil Hill, shows, enrollment — including online-only college students — has plummeted by 1.5 million from fall 2012 to fall 2020 — at a much greater rate almost 7.5 million.
The graphic is a compelling depiction of just how much virtual education has helped save the nation’s colleges and universities from even worse hardship.
I’m not suggesting that distance learning is so powerful that it alone will emerge as a utopian force capable of reversing higher education. Colleges and universities face a tide of troubling challenges that digital education alone cannot mitigate. But in an unexpected shift since the pandemic, senior academic leaders are no longer putting it on the back burner.
Aware of their crucial role in maintaining higher education, many colleges and universities are now going online prudently.