The End of College? (or Maybe Just the End of Kevin Carey's Career)

04/30/2015 09:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

Kevin Carey's book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, has been receiving a lot of attention in the press lately. Carey boldly pronounces that colleges and universities should be and will be held accountable for their deficiencies, such that their complete demise is only a matter of time. Good riddance, he sneers. Reading that cocksure call, one wonders whether Carey and his enablers will hold Carey similarly accountable for his own professional liabilities.

The main narrative hook of The End of College is that Carey took time away from his job and his family to complete a free online college course called "The Secret of Life," and he's mighty proud that he received an 87 percent grade overall in the course.

Because of that transformative experience, Carey thinks himself now able to peer into and predict the future, and to do so with tremendous confidence: Residential, brick-and-mortar colleges and universities will have to close shop, he augurs. Everything will, instead, be online. Education will be free. It will be worldwide. It will be accessible. It will be meritocratic. Gone will be professors. Gone will be PhD degrees. Gone will be Harvard. Carey now knows The Secret of Education.

Advances in technology will disrupt the traditional forms of education, he propounds, and thus the whole U.S. higher education edifice will come crashing down. Replacing traditional colleges and universities will be globalized MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that can be customized for individual learners through self-correcting A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) feedback algorithms. Big Data will know more and more about how you learn, not just how you shop, and Carey is breathlessly excited about this techno-edutopia to come.

But hold it: We've heard this MOOC hype before -- about two to three years ago (which is an eternity in techno-years). The MOOC run-up has already run its course. The book now reads as woefully dated, as if Carey came late to a Silicon Valley party. The MOOCs Über Alles blitzkrieg, promoted heavily by some early Stanford-based computer science flim-flam artists out for mega-bucks, has already been cooled and even discredited. Many of the big trends Carey gushes over have already come up dry. Many of the Carey's big heroes showcased in the book, such as Sebastian Thrun, have already thrown in the towel regarding educational MOOCs. Carey apparently at one point drank the Clayton Christensen "disruptive innovation" Kool-Aid but doesn't seem to realize that his book now reads like a bad hangover.

Results are already in about MOOCs: they aren't so massive after all, especially at the end of a course. Completion rates are abysmally low. The data show that the persons who complete them are overwhelmingly older males who already have advanced degrees -- in other words, precisely Carey's demographic. Studies now show that underprivileged students who haven't enjoyed ready access to education are most in need of real teachers, not canned lectures pretending to be video games. We now know that the most important catalyst for learning isn't some fancy bells-and-whistles software platform, but inspiring and dedicated in-the-flesh classroom mentors.

So what went so wrong so fast with Carey's book? Surely in his occupational capacity as Director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation he keeps up with late-breaking education studies, trends, and data -- how, then, did he manage to publish a Dead On Arrival book, such that recent developments render the book's main pitch already behind-the-times rather than prescient?

Carey's book doesn't fit into a ready genre of book production. The End of College isn't a scholarly work, even though it wants to take on (and take down) the world of academe. It isn't an example of, nor grounded in any social science field -- not economics, political science, history, sociology, or psychology, though it dabbles in and out of these fields (along with dropping references to cog sci and neuroscience) and yet includes far more footnotes than does the typical airport trade book. But no scholar would claim this book. And it doesn't meet the basic standards of journalism, where one tries to present a balanced approach and various sides to an issue. And few newspaper editors would accept its wild and unguarded prognostications even as an over-the-top rant for the op-ed page. It's something else.

First, it's not just a wide-eyed crystal-ball-ish divining of the future. It's also a broad and scathing critique of the present. Carey submits sweepingly that American higher education has been waging, for a long time, a massive con job on the public, and the jig is up. But it's also more than just vision and critique. The book is centrally about Kevin Carey -- about his parents, and his childhood, and his own college experience, and the entrepreneurial heroes he admires, and his transformative MOOC class experience. History and public policy dovetail into memoir and personal predilection, and that's where The End of College gets awkward and weird.

Carey reveals way too much about himself: tmi, as one would say in a texting format. His father was a PhD computer scientist, he informs us on page 7. His mother earned her PhD, too. But Carey never got his PhD. He regards his own BA degree, from a large public university, to be little more than a piece of paper with his "name, rank, and number" on it. We readers feel the sting of his hurt and of his generational status anxiety, and he invites us to compare his personal shame in not achieving his PhD with his glowing pride in earning a merit badge thanks to his 87 percent score on that pivotal MOOC course. PhD's, he adamantly tells us, are way overrated, and that goes for his father, too. (A little too much cartoon Oedipalism is going on in this book, along with the textbook concern for self-made-man autonomy as antidote.)

Carey concedes that his father worked hard for his PhD, but Carey diminishes that diligence by underscoring that his father was "lucky" to live near an institution of higher learning that happened to enable his particular achievement. But such luck shouldn't be rewarded with job protection, Carey professes. By the second paragraph of his "History of the American PhD" (pp. 32ff), Carey rues that universities will hire only PhDs as teachers. The PhD, we learn furthermore, is simply a marker of status, not a marker of merit, and serves merely as a guild card to keep out true talent from universities (that would be...Carey?). To drive home his point in that mini-history section, Carey quotes a purely imaginary professor that he conjures up for the reader: "...with the Ph.D., you have value, or rather a price tag that will keep you employed."

Carey continues to battle psychic demons and enemy PhDs: We readers learn (albeit absent data or criteria) that most PhDs in universities today are terrible teachers or else swim in a "sea of mediocrity." Carey confides that he felt "status anxiety" while taking a recent tour of Harvard, and so we are supposed to share his glee when we learn that elitist Harvard reluctantly and belatedly had to join MOOC forces with more down-to-earth-minded MIT. Strangely interwoven with his own family narrative is a family narrative about Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and his father and sons. Trachtenberg, though he never earned a Ph.D. [note to Carey: get over it] became a university president who deliberately ran up the cost of his institution in order to ratchet up the institution's status. But late in life Trachtenberg realized that his era of high-priced, high-status, low-delivering universities was coming to an end. And Carey dwells on Tractenberg's own familial come-uppance: One of his sons landed a job in Silicon Valley with LinkedIn. Trachtenberg thought his son should get a PhD, as Tractenberg's father had advised him. Trachtenberg's son rebuked him, however: "But, Dad, if I get a PhD in my line of work, I'll be looked down upon." That generational rebuke in a shifting economy makes Carey very happy and convinces him that the University of Everywhere is surely in the offing, not just in his head.

Carey lauds Minerva University as a pioneering online university for the future. Minerva is the brainchild of Snapfish founder Ben Nelson. The Minerva folks will hold online classes, availing themselves of freely available MOOCs; but with their proprietary software platform, they will divide their students into small online discussion sections of 25 or so. Minerva seeks to attract Harvard-grade students who will need to pay only a fraction of Harvard's cost, about $10K/year. While all teaching and learning will be on-line, Nelson promises that Minerva students will have a residential experience: they will live in four (eventually) different world-class cities over their four-year stretch. Nelson envisions expanding Minerva to 200,000 students worldwide, which would make it very profitable. Carey is impressed that Minerva has attracted $25 million in startup venture capital.

We at Pomona College happen to know a different side to the Minerva story. Nelson discovered a "loophole" (his word) around the national accreditation process: find an already accredited college in your region, and if that college will "sponsor" you as co-curricular partner, you can be accredited before you ever open your doors and ever teach an actual class! Minerva approached Pomona College with precisely that backdoor proposition and wooed us for about a year, trying to convince us to front and to vouch for them. After considerable study and debate, the Pomona College faculty roundly rejected such an offer.

There were many such reasons. Some faculty members objected to the very premise that a for-profit company could be entrusted to deliver an uncompromised, incorruptible, truth-seeking college education. Some balked at the fact that discredited former university presidents Bob Kerry and Larry Summers were the two academics sitting on the Minerva Board of Trustees supposedly to lend gravity and integrity to the operation. Some were incensed at the claim that Minerva could provide the functional substitute for a liberal arts education: for instance, an on-line format can provide no hands-on laboratory science, no productive or performative or group-based art, music, or theatre courses, no physical education or recreational sport, no face-to-face foreign language instruction, no internships, no student government, no organized extracurricular activities, and not much of anything beyond screen time.Nelson (or at least Carey) conveniently fails to point out that the reported $10K/year figure doesn't include room and board and other costs. When we asked about student problems, mental health issues, for example, Minerva officials responded -- no kidding -- that their advanced biometric screening devices in the admissions process will keep out such troubled individuals.

After Pomona College turned down Minerva's request to assist them in circumventing the normal accreditation process [side note to those who complain about the college accreditation system: start your start-up as unaccredited, earn a track record of accomplishment, let market competition prove your institution's superior worth and value in comparison with those "protected" accredited places, and stop complaining], Minerva officials found an institution willing to take on a partnership with Minerva for the sake of a sped-up and untested accreditation: the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont. The Keck Graduate Institute's own history is also one of forcing a partnership on the basis of pure hype: In 1997 Keck became a member of the Claremont College Consortium owing to can't-miss claims about the lucrative biotech industry to come, flowing from the much-ballyhooed Human Genome Project (another of Carey's grand fantasies). The Keck Graduate Institute never delivered on its promise of producing a biotech corridor in the Claremont area, so apparently Keck officials were willing to hitch their wagon to Minerva's star. We'll see how that partnership goes, especially since Keck has heretofore been in the business of teaching graduate students, not undergraduates.

Minerva may make money, eventually, yielding a robust return to its VC investors. But to many of us at Pomona College it hardly seems like a sure thing, notwithstanding Carey's ringing endorsement. Minerva's business plan relies on finding enough students worldwide who believe they are smart enough to get into Harvard but are, at the same time, gullible enough to think that Minerva is comparable to Harvard, only cheaper.

Carey makes big claims in The End of College. He sees an inevitable future ahead, the culminating result of certain technological and economic trends that he insists are trending all around us. Using the same mish-mash methodology to predict the future, he ought to write a companion book -- a sequel to The End of College -- called The End of Sex. The argument would go like this: Disruptive innovations in virtual technologies everywhere are rendering residential sex obsolete. is clearly more efficient than old, clumsy courtship rituals, and improved algorithms will obviate the need entirely for bar hopping. Virtual sex is disease-free and quantifiable. Advancements in robotics, tactile interactivity, customizable AI, and neuro-scientific sensory mapping are all conspiring to supplant old-school face-to-face sexuality. Virtual sex is market-friendly and doesn't rely on unfair status credentials. Carey will probably make good money if he puts forth The End of Sex book, and he'll be able to laugh at stodgy PhDs all the way to the bank.

Sarcasm aside, the point is: there's something salacious, sordid, and sad about Carey's edu-porn vision. It relentlessly discounts the value of face-to-face human relations and overlooks the inherent (and irreplaceable) joy of such encounters. Many (we'd say most) professors and students do what they do, not because they are motivated primarily by status or job concerns, but because they love learning and learning with others. Carey, though, thinks all of this interpersonal activity can be consolidated, standardized, digitized, and scaled up. Why should you have 500 separate orchestras on 500 separate college campuses when everyone could listen to one centralized and professionalized orchestra play the same music and play it better?

Well, neuroscientists report that the brain explodes with productive synaptic activity when persons perform music (as opposed to merely listening to it). Call musical performance, then, exercise for the creative brain. And as any musician will tell you, playing music in a group, with others, is essential to one's musical development. Carey may think he can learn to play the trombone alone in his room by opening his laptop and Skyping into an AI-enhanced MOOC trombone course, but he'd be wrong.

In only one place in the book does Carey raise the question of whether humanities education can be effectively digitized. His discussion is limited to one paragraph. The extent of his investigation: He asks a Harvard biologist for his views on the matter. That's it. Carey doesn't present any evidence, let alone countervailing views. The biologist's answer: "The humanities are a series of juxtaposed exposures to very different things -- perhaps music, literature, and film -- that provoke moments of coalescences and realization. Technology provides many ways to achieve such moments...."

You would think that, in writing a book on education, the Director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation would treat the subject with the rigor, depth, and thoughtfulness that the subject deserves. Instead, Carey has produced a sloppy polemic, a revenge fantasy that tries to turn personal resentment and cynicism into public policy. The End of College is an embarrassment. And it's not because Kevin Carey lacks a PhD.