It was the law professor (and prominent internet commentator) Glenn Reynolds who first popularized the phrase “higher education bubble.” Drawing on Stein’s Law, Reynolds argued that the market for higher education, like the housing market before it, is on an unsustainable, inflationary path. “Bubbles form when too many people expect values to go up forever,” he observes. “Bubbles burst when there are no longer enough excessively optimistic and ignorant folks to fuel them. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen already where education is concerned.”

the new criterion

The New Criterion article goes on to discuss the wave of online university level course which are being offered for free. Given a choice between spending 20-60k per year in a bricks and mortar university or effectively nothing online the initial decision should be pretty straightforward.

But there are intangible social goods that four years of an undergraduate degree bring: friends, connections, romantic partners, drinking buddies and hooking up. Viewed from a purely logical perspective these things are hardly worth 20k a year; but they are not worth nothing.

So, a modest business proposition: why not set up what amount to tutorial centers? These would be very much free enterprise units where students could meet other students, create study groups, take tutorials based on online course material and, in time, write exams to test their knowledge.

Oddly, this is very much the way that the old Universities – Oxford and Cambridge – evolved: the colleges being the equivalent of tutorial centers with the added bonus of accommodation.

Of course, the major course providers such as Coursera are counting on online student interaction; but I suspect a more intense experience would be offered by local centers with loose affiliations to the course providers. We’ll see.


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