The State of Higher Education

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“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit.”- Plutarch


As a senior at a well-respected university, I have gotten to experience what most people would call the best that our current educational system has to offer. Duke has given me access to some of the world’s best professors, surrounded me with other intellectually curious students, and provided me the best resources to cultivate my learning.

Interestingly, I had a similar experience from a course I took through Coursera. The class was Stanford’s Introduction to Computer Science class, and it was taught by Professor Mehran Sahami. To this day, it is still the best engineering class I have ever taken. Professor Sahami is an absolutely brilliant lecturer, and, despite the fact that we have never met, he fostered in me a lasting curiosity and excitement about the power of programming. Since then, I have taken a few more classes with Coursera, and they have all been exceptional learning experiences. And, even better, they were all free.

With that said, I can’t help but reconsider my Duke education. I can’t help but ask the question: “What are we really paying for?” If we can get access to the best educators and resources in the world for free online, then why are we paying exorbitant prices to go to college?


“Think about the absurdity of it. Stanford goes and says, ‘We are giving away our AI course free to everyone on the planet — except if you were admitted to Stanford, in which case it will be $5,000, please!’” -Ben Nelson, CEO of Minerva


Despite massive improvements in technology, the general structure of higher education has not changed for hundreds of years. Students still, for the most part, attend large universities, where their educational experiences are primarily limited to attending large lectures with dozens or even hundreds of their fellow classmates. (The Intro to CS class at Harvard currently has over 800 students enrolled.) However, considering information is now free and widely available, this paradigm simply doesn’t make sense anymore. Universities no longer have a monopoly in the market for information. In fact, there barely is a market for information because everything is, once again, free and widely-available on the internet.

“So what are we paying for?”

The current system for higher education appears to be broken in the United States. University tuition is exorbitantly high; however, the returns on the investment are lower than ever. Despite this, costs of tuition, and the consequent student debt, continue to sky-rocket. In addition, my experience at Duke has suggested the quality of instruction has suffered as well, as more emphasis is placed on collegiate sports and campus aesthetics than on actual academics. The consensus among students here is that money has come to dominate the priorities of university administrators, and the emphasis on educating us has diminished as a result. Sadly, I’m not sure I can blame administration for their shift in priorities. After all, Duke is competing with other prestigious universities for the glory of Best American University. It’s a devastating prisoner’s dilemma that universities are caught up in. They would all be better off if they stopped the massive construction projects and focused on learning, but each college is incentivized to defect in order to gain “top prize”.

The irony is that top universities are so competitive with one another that they are failing to realize their real competitors: private education technology companies. Though still in their infancy, low cost, technology-based institutions like Coursera and Minerva are slowly gaining traction, and will upend the existing paradigm for higher education in the next decade. And if you don’t believe me, take it from Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen.


“I think higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don’t feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble.” — Clay Christensen, 2013


Continue to Part 2 of this post here.

1 Claudio Munoz. “The Attack of the MOOCSs.” Illustration. July 20, 2013. From The Economist. http://www.economist.com/news/business/21582001-army-new-online-courses-scaring-wits-out-traditional-universities-can-they (accessed September 17, 2014).

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