The most notorious oracle predicting the coming death spiral of academia was the late Harvard University professor Clayton Christensen, who in 2011 famously forecast that “50 percent of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.” His prophecy was based on the notion that digital alternatives to face-to-face education—in his view, much cheaper and friendlier than conventional instruction—would convince millions of college students to turn their backs on stodgy, old campuses to earn degrees in internet alternatives instead.
A year earlier, Stanford University computer scientist Sebastien Thrun, co-founder of commercial MOOC provider Udacity, outdid Christiansen, predicting an even bleaker future for face-to-face classes, claiming that in 50 years streaming lectures will so subvert conventional higher ed that only 10 U.S. colleges will remain standing.
Even Microsoft’s Bill Gates predicted that online education would undermine the very foundations of U.S. colleges, entirely destabilizing the university.
But rather than landing a crushing blow, just the opposite happened.
The high priests of high tech have spoken, but they were mistaken. Digital innovation did not bring traditional higher education to its knees. Instead, it has played a key role in helping it survive. Not one college went under wholly because of digital competition.
And think what might have happened to colleges during the pandemic without the ability to switch to online instruction?
“Bottom line, remote learning in higher ed avoided what could have been an unmitigated catastrophe,” says Michael Goldstein, a managing director at Tyton Partners, an investment banking and higher ed consulting firm. “In the pandemic, digital education allowed students to continue their education almost entirely uninterrupted, faculty to remain largely employed, and institutions to continue in business—remarkably sustaining most of their academic revenue streams.”
“If it weren’t for fairly pervasive digital infrastructure in place before the pandemic,” Goldstein continued, “it wouldn’t have been possible for online to surge so seamlessly, with classes lined up as in ‘Hollywood Squares.’”
The tumbling cascade of bricks-and-mortar colleges never happened. Fewer than 90 colleges went under in the last few years, more likely in part as a consequence of COVID-19 pressures than death by digital disruption. And a third of those are for-profits, which had already been under stress for years before the pandemic.
Colleges are under plenty of stress, but competition from online alternatives to traditional campuses are low on the list of pressures. Bigger forces include falling high-school graduation rates, especially in New England and the Midwest and reductions in state funding in many regions. While the pandemic hit higher ed very hard, it also fueled growth in the number of students enrolled in exclusively distance education.
Unlike the newspaper industry, which suffered internet wipeouts, shutting down thousands of local papers in the last decades, colleges and universities slowly adapted to the virtual revolution by letting online courses and degrees stealthily infiltrate higher ed. A recent review of the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System revealed the surprising new finding that, even before the pandemic, more than half of college students in the U.S. were enrolled in at least one online course. The biggest universities in the U.S.—Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire—report more than 100,000 mostly online enrollments each.
Widespread faculty opposition to digital education over the years did not keep remote instruction from taking hold. As the digital revolution elbowed its way into the nation’s cultural and commercial spheres, virtual versions split off from earlier industrial-era products, often overturning them. But the university kept the lights on in old classrooms and left the windows open to let in digital clouds. While the internet fractured the global economy, luckily, the university kept instruction going in both analog and digital classrooms, side by side.
Perhaps the most telling recent data reveals that if it weren’t for online enrollments, the current decline in the higher ed student population would be far more severe. As the graph below, prepared by the insightful edtech consultant Phil Hill, shows, enrollments—when counting fully online college students in the mix—fell 1.5 million from fall 2012 to fall 2020. But excluding online students, the present downturn in higher ed enrollment plunged significantly more—to nearly 7.5 million.
The graph is an arresting depiction of how much virtual education has helped save the nation’s colleges and universities from suffering even worse distress.
I’m not suggesting that remote instruction is so powerful that it alone will emerge as a utopian driving force capable of turning around higher ed. Colleges and universities are faced with a storm of troubling challenges that cannot be mitigated only by digital education. But in an unexpected shift since the pandemic, senior academic leaders no longer place it on a back burner.
Recognizing its crucial role in sustaining higher ed, many colleges and universities are now prudently moving online up front.