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The futurist: The collapse of college

Thomas Frey //July 17, 2013//

The futurist: The collapse of college

Thomas Frey //July 17, 2013//

When Mozart died in 1791, his 29-year-old wife, Constanze Weber, was forced to earn a living. She began selling her late husband’s manuscripts and turned the former messy paper scraps lying around the house into a tidy income stream.

Lucky for her, she lived after Gutenberg’s printing revolution had begun in Europe, allowing her to leverage the power of rapid reproducibility

Over time, the music industry has figured out many different formats for reproducing music, moving from sheet music, to Edison’s cylinder phonograph, to vinyl records, to 8-track tapes and eventually to downloadable digital recordings.

During those same 200+ years, colleges have done little to reproduce and distribute college courses, choosing instead to redo each college class, much like ancient monks reproducing the scrolls of history.

When demand for education increased, they simply built more colleges, thousands of them, in fact, all over the world. This is analogous to forcing people to go to concerts and other live venues to listen to music.

Over the coming decades, the amount of education we consume to stay competitive will increase exponentially.

However, the education we “buy” will increasingly be on our terms, not theirs. We will want education that is relative, timely, available on-demand and fits within a specific need. And it will need to be far more affordable.

For these reasons and more, we will begin to see the mass failure of traditional colleges. But out of this will come an entire new education era unlike anything we have ever seen.

Embracing the Digital Era

Over the past decade, the number of people reading printed newspapers, visiting retail stores and using direct mail have fallen sharply.

At the same time, the amount of news consumed on a daily basis has risen sharply, the overall level of retail sales has continued to increase and person-to-person communications through email, social media, texting and other forms of digital communications has exploded around us. 

Each industry has forged its own unique path into the digital age.

In the past few months, the level of experimentation surrounding college education has shot up, and many are getting considerable traction. A high level of experimentation is always a leading indicator of change, even if we don’t have a clear view of what it will look like on the other side.

Student Loan Backlash

There’s a big difference between affordability and financeability. Until now, colleges have had a relatively easy time selling a student on getting an education today in exchange for some unknown monthly payment to be determined later.

Hundreds if not thousands of studies have been commissioned over the years to support the value of higher education, and students on the fence are quickly overwhelmed with evidence that they’re making the right decision.

In fact, the anti-education crowd is very small, and those questioning the cost of education have only become vocal during the past few years.

The “education industrial complex” is perhaps the most influential in the world, with everyone from Presidents and world leaders, to Nobel Laureates, to CEOs and business executives all unwavering in their support of colleges and their accomplishments.

Yet for the lowly student sitting at home with $100,000 in debt and the only job available to them is one that doesn’t require a college degree, the entire system begins to feel like a house of lies, with festering levels of anger working their way to the top.

Over the coming months, this seething cauldron of discontent will begin to erupt in unusual ways.

(Read more tomorrow.)