I sat down with Lawrence S. Bacow, President in Residence at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and Former President of Tufts to ask him if technology will bend the cost curve of higher education or will it further stratify higher education? Bacow who is also a member of the Harvard Corporation and Former Chancellor of MIT, says it is too early to tell.
"I think it's an open question whether or not technology will further stratify higher education. Anyone who tells you these days they know the impact that online learning is going to have on the future of higher education is blowing smoke," Bacow says.
Bacow is collaborating with other college presidents to study technology in higher education and working hard to address the cost curve. As we approach commencement 2014, the sticker tag for a year at Harvard is surpassing $58,000 for tuition and board and increased competition for every seat in top-tier colleges across the country feels daunting.
Harvard is the gold standard of education, the fabled home of the greatest minds, and where Oprah Winfrey addressed the class of 2013 and former mayor of NYC, Michael Bloomberg, will address this year's class 0f 2014. It's the school of Hasty Pudding and Le Corbusier designed Carpenter Center, school to many presidents, Lean In's Sheryl Sandberg and it-kid Mark Zuckerberg. It's hard to not want to apply, at any age. But every year more and more applicants are turned away and the cost of attending grows. And the same thing is happening across the country. Bacow is noted as one of the leaders in the country addressing broader access and need-based financial aid given the costs of higher education. He has been described as one of the most respected university presidents in the country. He says we are only at the beginning of how this technological revolution in the classrooms will play out.
What's the most important project on your desk today?
I'm collaborating these days with Bill Bowen, the former president of Princeton and the Mellon Foundation and Mike McPherson the former president of Macalester College and president of the Spencer Foundation on a big study to understand the consequences of the emerging online educational technologies for traditional colleges and universities. We're particularly interested in how we can use technology to bend the cost curve in higher education. We believe that rising costs represent the biggest challenge for higher education these days and we think there's an opportunity to use technology to try and address this challenge but it's not going to be easy.
Will the wealthy be the only students one day who can afford the on-campus college experience?
It's way too early to tell. What we do know about online learning is that it's only going to get better. We've had a thousand years to perfect chalk and talk (the traditional lecture/recitation format) which is how most of us were educated but online education is still in its infancy.
We're still figuring out how to use it in parallel with other forms of education. There's a tendency to say that the world is going to bifurcate, as you've suggested, into those who are going to get their education online and those who are going to get it otherwise but these days if you really look carefully, it's difficult to find a course that's not taught in some form of blended learning. Everything is a hybrid.
What changes have you seen?
One of the things, a positive in my view, is that, at least among the elite institutions they've been doing a better job over the last ten years or so in enrolling students that come from the bottom quartile of the income distribution. There's been a concerted effort to do that and it's yielded some success.
Where there have been losses, interestingly, is in the public institutions in enrolling the same groups of students. The reason is that, with the financial crisis of 2008, states disinvested in public support for higher education. As a result, the great state universities, where the vast majority of kids get educated in America today, saw a decline in state support. The only way they could make up for that was to raise tuition. And in many cases, they raised tuition quite dramatically yet they did not necessarily increase financial aid proportionally. Those who really got squeezed were at the bottom of the income distribution. So, the question then becomes what will technology do to all of this? And I think that's very much an open question. (Seventy percent of Harvard students receive some form of financial aid.)
The push to get into those top schools seems at an-all-time fervor and the costs stratospheric. Those brands have become so strong and their costs are so high. Is it any different than it's been in the past?
I think it's correct that we've become much more brand aware in higher education and I think, to a fault. You can get a great education at lots of institutions in the United States.
One of the things that differentiates higher education in the United States from many other countries is that we have people who've been phenomenally successful in literally every realm of society who've gone to great places that everybody has heard of and places that nobody has heard of and you can get a great education in lots of different kinds of institutions in the United States.
In many places in the world, if you don't go to one of a handful of institutions, you have no chance of ever aspiring to the upper reaches of society. This is not true in the United States.
Unfortunately, I think that as a country, as a society, as an economy, we've become much more brand conscious in every dimension. I don't think this is healthy but it's having a perverse impact on higher education.
What do you say about the importance of contacts someone from a state college makes compared to those at a private college?
I think kids can be happy at lots of different kinds of schools. What's important is that they make the big decisions right. Do they want a big school? Do they want a small school? Do they want an urban school? Do they want a rural school? Do they want to get on an airplane? Do they want to wear flip-flops in January? Once you get past that, students could be happy almost anywhere, and usually are. It's their parents who often view where their kid gets into college as a grade on how they've done as a parent and I think that's sad.
Is Harvard doing something that no one else is taking on at the moment?
I don't think so. Never forget there are over 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States and there's probably nothing that Harvard's doing that somebody else isn't doing at the same time.
I think that there are lots of people pursuing lots and lots of different ideas. That's what a university is all about. The vast majority of ideas that come forward in a great university come from the faculty and they do not think with one voice, nor should they. It literally is a thousand flowers blooming and it's difficult to say which ones are going to flourish and take root.
How will Gen X'ers afford higher education for their kids as the economy suffers and costs skyrocket?
First of all, if some of us are successful, we will bend the cost curve for higher education. Secondly, while costs have risen, and there's no question about it, what's also true is that an investment in higher education is still among the very best investments that you can make on behalf of your children and if you take a look at the differential in earnings between a high school graduate and a college graduate, they've never been higher. It's my hope that as the economy recovers, and it is, that we will see the public sector once again investing in higher education as it has in the past and this is already occurring. If you take a look at California, if you take a look at Massachusetts, if you take a look at most states, state support for their public institutions is coming back.
That doesn't help people if they want to send their kids to private colleges?
That's your choice. But you're now saying, you want to send them to a private institution and as I said, you can get a great education anywhere, including at many, many public institutions.
But look, it's a very expensive product right now and many people who may have gone to a private college in the past really have to stretch to pay for their kids to have the same experience today.
It is expensive. There's no question that it's expensive but one has to take a look at it as an investment and ask what is the value. The very, very best institutions give very generous financial aid, even for people who are by any measure middle class these days. If you take a look at Harvard's financial aid program, or when I was in my last year or two at Tufts after the financial crisis, we were flooded with applications from kids from California. The dean of admissions used to say, 'we're UC Medford.' Why? Because the actual cost of attending Tufts was less than attending the University of California system for many, many students because we had far more generous financial aid policies. So, while the sticker price was higher, the net cost of attending was lower than going to the University of California. People do have options.
This is an exclusive excerpt for The Huffintongpost.com. Read the full interview with Lawrence S. Bacow at TheEditorial.com.
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