We Told You So: UC Fulfills NAS Prophecy

Ashley Thorne

Our predictions are coming true. In Peter Wood’s September 2009 article “The Shape of (Academic) Things to Come” NAS revealed the fate of higher education over the next 10-20 years (quotes from this document are in bold below). Reporting as if from the year 2030, we divined:  

In 2024, the movement to close state colleges and universities crested. This movement began in 2017 with the passage of a ballot proposition in California promoted by the taxpayer group, Citizens for Free College. CFC argued that California could offer a free college education to all who wanted it at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers of maintaining the state’s public systems. The ballot initiative allowed individual institutions to continue if they could maintain themselves at no cost to the state and if they could afford to lease their land and facilities from the state.  In the end, only the University of California Berkeley survived the five-year phased-in shut-down. Berkeley was purchased by a company based in Shenzhen, PRC, with extensive interests in mining and telecommunications.  

Now back to the present. This week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that, “in crisis,” the University of California is looking to spend $5-6 million on a major online education pilot project. The Chronicle says “The proposal comes at a key moment for the University of California system, which is in the midst of a wrenching internal discussion about how best to adapt to reduced state support over the long term.” We see parallels between our prediction and present reality. Loss of state support is causing a major public research university to reconsider its options. And as we predicted, it begins in California.  

Our forecast corresponds to this story in additional ways. The NAS oracle continues: 

Online education had been thriving long before this, of course, but the huge new demand for online courses and programs turned online education into something like the railroad boom of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most surprising change was that the new online sector was almost entirely for-profit.   

The Chronicle article echoes the for-profit theme: “Supporters of the plan believe online degrees will make money, expand the number of California students who can enroll, and re-establish the system’s reputation as an innovator.” Indeed, we prophesied: 

Fortunes were there to be made and numerous start-ups crowded into the market, but it was hard to compete with the giants of the field, DeVry and Kaplan. These two became the Harvard and Princeton of the new era, setting the academic standards that everyone else emulated.  During the period in which Yale was struggling to hold on, it tried to market itself as “the DeVry of the North,” but the market for content-free intellectual snobbery had simply collapsed.  

The closing of Yale in 2021, however, was a true turning point. The last-minute efforts to save it—remember the “Too Yale to Fail” campaign?—focused on the supposedly dire economic consequences for the region if the august Ivy died away. Almost no one predicted the financial renaissance for New Haven in the wake of the collapse.    

In the present, there are signs that Ivy League universities are already falling behind online education providers: 

But the system's proposed focus on for-credit courses for undergraduates actually stands out when compared with other leading institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and YaleUniversity. Both have attracted attention for making their course materials available free online, but neither institution offers credit to people who study those materials. 

A major benefit of the online overhaul is educrats’ favorite word, access, or as the Chronicle puts it, “democratization of access to elite education.” Dr. Wood characterized large-scale online higher education as chiefly a source of “options,” indicating that higher education will become one of many favorable choices for bright young people, who will increasingly opt to apprentice in privately run laboratories, think tanks, and experimental stations. While college will be accessible to the many, it will not always be their first choice. And because online education requires a significant measure of initiative and self-motivation, it weeds out the half-hearted. This kind of access, therefore, is more like an open door on the ceiling than in the wall. The only people who go through are the ones who really want to. 

The U of California’s plans are a fulfillment of our prediction, not necessarily our wishes. We view the rise of online education as a two-sided coin. It happily provides a less expensive alternative to traditional college and an opportunity for reduced politicization in the curriculum. Yet it also eliminates the element of face-to-face human interaction—which many argue is essential to higher learning—and advocates that electronic proficiency replace literacy (see “Electracy”). In any case, this shift is a reality of the future. 

We are gratified that the NAS augury is coming true, confirming our insights almost eerily well. We will continue to watch trends in higher education and provide updated analysis of where academia is headed. 

In the meantime, we will refrain from using our powers of prognostication to reveal the ending of the series finale of Lost. With great power comes great responsibility. 

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