As many pundits have pointed out, higher education is reaching a crisis. This crisis can most clearly be seen in terms of costs, with federal support being cut and student debt surpassing the national debt, but it also strikes at the identity and purpose of higher education. In his book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, Kevin Carey presents a provocative vision of a dramatic shift in the future of higher education, based on its history and the development patterns of technology in contemporary society. Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, focuses primarily on the role that technology will have in bringing the conventional “hybrid” universities of the United States to their knees. He argues that, whether educators want it to or not, the hybrid college that is the backbone of higher education today will soon be compelled to make way for a technological revolution that will make high quality, affordable education available to students everywhere.
Carey structures his argument around his experience taking a free, online course offered by MIT through the online program EdX. Carey chose to take “The Secrets of Life,” an online adaption of an introductory biology course taught by Eric Lander, focused on his work in genetics. Carey juxtaposes this experience against the current situation in higher education: massive debt and questionable outcomes. Then, using this experience as a jumping-off point, Carey explores the history of higher education, starting with the first college to be established in Bologna, traveling through Paris to Cambridge and Oxford, and finally arriving at Harvard.
The author then describes three purposes for higher education that developed in America: the need to train skilled labor, the need to promote research, and the need to instill a liberal arts education in young adults. According to Carey, around the time of the Civil War a compromise between these three goals was achieved by Harvard’s president William Elliot. Elliot proposed that universities should be a place where students are allowed to chart their own course toward a profession through a multitude of electives offered by faculty who primarily focus on research. Carey labeled this type of college a “hybrid” college and used that term to typify the bulk of the higher education institutions in the United States today.
This three-fold purpose, according to Carey, contradicts itself and leads to the problems that higher education now faces. Soon after Elliot proposed his model, most higher education institutes followed Harvard’s example. Carey notes that although the Ph.D. became the standard qualification for faculty after Elliot set his policy in place, few Ph.D. candidates are trained or prepared to teach, and, consequently, undergraduates are often neglected in the pursuit of various research interests. Carey makes the argument that at hybrid colleges, faculty have not been held to any special standard in regard to the quality of their teaching but have been left for the most part to pursue their own interests.
Carey observes that today a university is not known or lauded for its quality of undergraduate instruction but rather for its reputation and prestige, [End Page 299] with the Ivy Leagues being the gold standard. As a result, administrators in universities and colleges across the United States try their best to make their institutions resemble Harvard and Yale. They build grand buildings and quads and establish the earliest founding dates that they can document for their institution. They offer their students luxurious amenities, all in hopes of attracting greater numbers of highly qualified applicants. Carey notes that Harvard has no difficulty making these amenities accessible to its lower-income students because of its large endowment. Not having the large endowment of Harvard, other institutions must continually make the higher education experience more expensive for students. Contemporary students and their parents, also pursuing the Ivy League ideal and having few other alternatives, are induced to borrow ever-greater sums in their pursuit...