Think School photo from ShutterstockIf you are considering going to college or going back to college in the near future, I recommend you read my last post titled How Universities Are Failing Their Graduates, Part 3. I ended it with:

“Dinosaurs are dead. Is higher education (as we now know it) headed for a slot beside them in the Museum of Natural History?”

Within a week following my post, CNN aired a two hour special entitled The Ivory Tower that was subtitled “Is college worth the cost?” The film brought up some of the issues I raised in my three recent posts. In this post, I want to discuss alternatives to the excessive hype and cost of typical university degree programs.

It’s important to note the potential advantages of technical schools and community colleges. For those who are not quite ready to toss all traditional higher education onto the trash heap of outdated societal traditions, technical schools and community colleges are certainly worth a look. Many people can earn reasonable incomes and have productive careers by learning the practical skills taught at technical/vocational schools. Likewise, community colleges can provide targeted coursework at significantly lower costs than universities.

But, the David that may slay the Goliath universities appears to be Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Every revolutionary market concept is besieged by detractors who range from their established competitors (universities, etc.) to the numble minded (“numble” is not a word…but, you know what I mean) late adopters who catch the wave about 15 years later.

So what the heck are MOOCs and why should you care? In the simplest terms, they offer flexible coursework at low or no cost.

A recent New York Times article titled Demystifying the MOOC cited this as a reason for disillusionment with MOOCs:

Eight of every 10 students enrolled in University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania MOOCs in 2012-13 already had a degree of some kind. The credentials gap was most pronounced in countries where the courses were supposed to have the biggest impact among the undereducated: Some 80 percent of MOOC students in Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa had a college degree, while in the overall population only 5 percent did.

So, this numble minded industrial media leader considers the attraction of MOOCs for college graduates a negative. Is it possible that college graduates are still feeling the sting of high university tuition costs and that they are early adopters, leading the way by avoiding expensive university courses?

Then, the New York Times article went on to say

A second problem is that when MOOCs replace traditional courses, an extremely high number of students fail.

Contrast this statement with my last blog post, referenced earlier, in which I quoted an article in The Economist that noted 43% of all grades handed out (double entendre intended) by universities and colleges were A’s. Given that MOOCs tend to be free, how much harm do you think is being caused by higher failure rates in these courses? While the New York Times seems to conclude that the high failure rate is due to the inherent inferiority of MOOCs, I believe there could be a wide range of other explanations.

The NYT article seems to draw the following conclusion:

The companies that rode to fame on the MOOC wave had visions (and still do) of offering unfettered elite education to the masses and driving down college tuition. But the sweet spot for MOOCs is far less inspirational and compelling.

Given how long it took newspapers and other industrial media to embrace the internet and their continued financial crises while struggling to enact strategies necessary to avoid extinction, I would place my bet on the MOOC originators rather than on the New York Times.

I’m running out of space, so I’ll conclude by explaining my reference to university mergers. If MOOCs succeed, they will surely drive a more rapid consolidation in higher education. Even without their impact, budget squeezes have begun to require consolidations as noted in a Time article titled Cash-Strapped Universities Turn to Corporate-Style Consolidation. A tsunami is coming in higher education. It may be just over the horizon. What do you think?