Keep the CBO in your prayers as it tries to gauge the direction of the higher-ed revolution

My Heritage colleague Lindsey Burke and I went over to the Congressional Budget Office today to give the staff a sense of what we think is going to happen in higher education.  The CBO’s job is to project the impact of bills and economic developments on the economy and the federal budget, so their analysts are very interested in the underlying trends that drive the economy.


So we gave the more than 70 analysts a sense of what has been happening, particularly the remarkable developments in just the last few months. Developments like the sudden appearance of MOOCs and the game-changing economics of free courses.  Texas’s $10,000 degree (which might actually seem overpriced in just a couple of years). And new business models like Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors. 


As we explained to the green eyeshades, “disruptive innovation” has happened suddenly and dramatically in several industries over the decades.  Remember how the Sony transistor radio decimated the vacuum tube radio industry. Or how Craigslist and online news aggregators like Huffington Post suddenly doomed the traditional newspaper business model.  And how Steve Jobs radically changed the music industry, not just the computer business.


The cozy world of higher education is on the brink of a similar disruption by the growing assortment of upstart competitors.  The days of the sage on the stage are numbered.  Overpaid professors who think that teaching a single undergraduate class is an irritating distraction in their busy day may soon be looking for another line of work, just as thousands of print journalists were forced to do.


Imagine, we said, if within 10 years the typical cost of a college education were to fall by 90 percent.  What would that mean for the ability of young Americans to get the skills they need without incurring any debt?  What would it mean for American competitiveness? What would it mean for economic mobility? And for the cost of federal assistance to higher education?


The fact is that nobody can say with any certainty.  And so we left those CBO officials scratching their heads trying to figure out what to say to the next congressional staffer who wants 10 year projections for the federal cost of Pell Grants. Or student loans.


All we could say is that the organization and economics of mainstream higher education is going to be very different, very soon. 

Posted by: Stuart Butler

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