Sunday, August 24, 2003

Wilted Ivy

The New York Times’s front page article discusses a new problem facing college students. As State Colleges Cut Classes, Students Struggle to Finish. State universities have suffered from cutbacks from the states due to the budget crisis. Unable or unwilling to cut in other areas, these schools are cutting classes.

Students can’t complete their majors because the courses aren’t offered or are closed up too quickly. And because students have to work many hours to pay off high college tuition, they can’t always sign up for the one class offered. They might be working the dish room at the dining hall when the only Intro to Stats class is being given.

What is going on here? Even with higher tuition, colleges are struggling. Where is all the money going? Certainly not to adjuncts and junior faculty. One student in my fall class will pay my salary two times over. And there are 17 other students in the class each forking over $5000 for the class. Where is the money going? To ancient professors who don’t pull their weight? To lazy administrators?

They can’t keep raising tuition. I believe the tuition at NYU this year is $25,000. The average income for a family of four in this country is $40,000. Soon a large portion of the middle class will be unable to borrow enough to send Junior to college.

The university system is crumbling. The ivy is wilting and the rugby fields are covered in clover.

I’m going to make a Jules Verne prediction for the future. In the next 10 to 15 years, many of the mid-level colleges are going close and reopen as cyber schools. The University of Phoenix has been very successful at it. The technical colleges have already started shifted their courses from the classroom to the monitor. It’s much more profitable. No campus upkeep. Less faculty. Large classes. Students also like it, because they can fit their courses into their work schedule.

In twenty years, a traditional college education with dorm rooms and intramural sports will only be for the very rich. Harvard will always be Harvard. Yale will always be Yale. But Fairleigh Dickinson University in Paramus, New Jersey is going to shut their doors and put in some high speed internet cables. The rich will have their schools, but everyone else will telecommute.

What is the future for the college professor in my Verne prediction? Well, there will be a need for someone to set up those lectures on line and prepare exams. One guy will write the lecture that millions will read. And then an army of T.A.s will answer questions, calculate grades, and take attendance. This development will surely make the academic job situation even tighter.

My prophesy is not a nightmare for students, however. My cousin is currently getting her college degree on line in the evenings after working full time. She’s able to do her coursework during lunch break at the office. She’s learning the same information, but isn’t wasting time between classes in a lecture hall or hanging out at a kegger at the fraternity. How responsible.

Though on-line universities may shake the traditional idea of college, maybe its time for us to get over it.

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