What the Downfall of Newspapers Portends for Education

When people talk about an education “bubble” they tend to compare it to housing (Helloooo availability bias), but the best analogy for explaining why the higher education system could ultimately break down comes from the way technology changed print journalism.

Seventy years ago if you lived in San Francisco and wanted to read an article about a Supreme Court decision, you couldn’t read about it in the San Diego Union-Tribune, you had to read about it in the San Francisco Chronicle. That meant the San Francisco Chronicle needed to pay a writer to cover the Supreme Court. Similarly, if you lived in San Diego, you couldn’t read the San Francisco Chronicle, you had to read the San Diego Union-Tribune. That meant the Tribune also needed to pay a reporter to cover the Supreme Court.

Once the internet came around, somebody living in San Diego could easily read a story on the Supreme Court written by the San Francisco Chronicle’s reporter, and they could do it for free.  They could even read a story written by the Supreme Court guy at the New York Times. The result was that it became pointless for the Tribune to pay their own Supreme court reporter. This type of thing happened to nearly every department at nearly every newspaper. Because the internet could bring a piece of content to the entire country, Americans no longer needed 100 reporters writing the same story.

Now think about the higher education system. Seventy years ago if you were attending Harvard and wanted to learn about economics, you couldn’t learn from a Princeton professor, you had to learn from a professor at Harvard. The reverse was true for a student and Princeton. That meant both Harvard and Princeton needed to hire professors to teach economics, and students interested in learning economics from those professors had to attend Harvard or Princeton.

Flash forward to 2011. We know that the internet’s ability to bring a piece of content to the entire country created a huge excess of newspaper reporters and articles, but people are slow to realize that that ability will eventually do the same with college classes.  Right now the bulk of the population can’t fathom losing the personal touch of a lecture hall, but there is no real reason why the country needs 500 different Econ 101 classes. It’s a waste of resources, just as having 500 Supreme Court reporters is a waste of resources.

Education won’t change as quickly as newspapers did. Reformers still need to find accurate and efficient ways to conduct assessment and credentialing through online classes. There also remains an institutional bias against online learning, and elite institutions will surely put up a frantic fight to preserve the current system. Newspapers held out for a long time, but eventually they fell. The same will happen with a good chunk of higher education.

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