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Colleges Should Learn From Newspapers' Decline

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Newspapers are dying. Are universities next?

For many, the answer could be yes, says Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. Writing in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carey argues that both industries are in the business of creating and communicating information.

It's clear that newspapers are in a death spiral. The Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, is bankrupt, as is the owner of the the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are gone, and the San Francisco Chronicle may not last the year. The New York Times' debt has been downgraded to junk.

All of this is happening despite the fact that the Internet has radically expanded the audience for news. Millions of people read the New York Times online, dwarfing its print circulation of slightly over one million. The problem is that the Times is not, and never has been, in the business of selling news. It's in the print advertising business. For decades, newspapers enjoyed a geographically defined monopoly over the lucrative ad market, the profits from which were used to support money-losing enterprises like investigative reporting and foreign bureaus. Now that money is gone, lost to cheaper online competitors like Craigslist. Proud institutions that served their communities for decades are vanishing, one by one.

As I've explained over the years, leaders of old paradigms have the greatest difficulty embracing the new. Why didn't Gannett create the Huffington Post? Why didn't NBC invent YouTube? Why didn't AT&T launch Twitter? Yellow Pages should have built Facebook and Microsoft should have come up with Google. And Craigslist would have been a perfect venture for the New York Times.

So far there is no Craigslist equivalent in the education industry, says Carey. That's because teaching is more complicated than advertising, and universities are sitting behind government-backed barriers to competition, in the form of accreditation. "Anyone can use the Internet to sell classified ads or publish opinion columns or analyze the local news. Not anyone can sell credit-bearing courses or widely recognized degrees."

Doubtless universities today are as confident as newspapers were ten years ago. The confidence by some is justified. "Tony liberal-arts colleges and other selective private institutions will do fine, as will public universities that garner a lot of external research support and offer the classic residential experience to the children of the upper middle class."

But less-selective private colleges and regional public universities, by contrast -- the higher-education equivalents of the city newspaper -- are in real danger. To survive and prosper, says Carey, universities need to integrate technology and teaching in a way that improves the learning experience while simultaneously passing the savings on to students in the form of reduced tuition.

One thing for sure. The smartest students want to get an "A" without having ever gone to the lectures. They understand that there are better ways of learning than being the passive recipient of a one-way, one size fits all, teacher-focused model where the student is isolated in the learning process. When the cream of the crop of an entire generation is boycotting the formal model of pedagogy, the writing is in the wall.

Don Tapscott recently led a survey of 11,000 young people around the world. He has written 13 widely read books on the impact of the Internet on society. His 1997 book Growing Up Digital defined the Net Generation and the sequel, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, was published in November 2008.