We've heard a little about how the landscape of college football could potentially see significant changes in the not-so-distant future. We've read a lot about concussions, and how they could potentially jeopardize high school football participation rates (some have already proposed banning the sport entirely). The outcome of the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, which is scaring the NCAA enough to swear off EA Sports, and perhaps for-profit schools as well, could potentially blow the entire enterprise up. There is also the potential of a bubble forming around the TV money that has enriched the sport, and driven conference realignment, as technologies could change the way TV services are delivered. There are lots of smart articles on that subject, and we'd encourage you to give some a read.
One writer thinks there might be an even bigger and more disruptive potential threat to big time college football, and even big time higher education in general. Jon Johnston at SB Nation's Nebraska blog, Corn Nation, wrote a long and thoughtful article on how online learning could potentially put many universities out of business. It's worth a read, which you can find here. Go ahead, open a new tab, and give it a read. I'll wait.
Now, do I think that large-scale online education will render such a threat to higher education that they'll close significant numbers of universities? No, *especially* the kind of universities that sponsor D1 college football.
Here is the basic argument. In an effort to attract more students, several universities have taken out large amount of debt to finance big construction projects, big name professors, and other amenities, while continuing to hike tuition. Some schools have been been experimenting with offering some coursework online, sometimes for free, in something called Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs allow schools to enroll thousands of students at a time in one course, potentially hundreds of thousands, at a dramatically lower cost, since the university wouldn't be responsible for a physical infrastructure. As students realize this is an option, fewer and fewer will bother enrolling in a traditional brick school, and the universities, stuck with the debt for their expensive physical assets, will die off. No universities, no college football, unless the University of Phoenix eventually joins the SEC.
On the surface, there is some logic to the argument, and over a much longer period of time, it might even be true. However, I think that assuming this is going to break everything down right now requires us to ignore some facts about the labor market, and the reasons folks go to college at all.
Right now, part of the reason that tuition hasn't really come down, in addition to all the expensive capital projects that may be starting up, is that lots of colleges are essentially working with a captive market. I've been working as a corporate recruiter for a few years, and the labor trends are pretty clear: if you're hoping for a white-collar type career, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for you if you don't get a BA. Those who hold college degrees have lower unemployment, and higher earning potential throughout their careers, even if they major in English from a smaller school nobody has ever heard of. Despite all of the articles about student debt reaching a crisis point (and it is!), we're not yet at the point where significant numbers of students are electing to forgo college altogether. They can't afford to.
So why not just use MOOCs then, right? If an purely online education is good enough for Johnny Manziel or The Jimmer, why should the rest of us wake up to take foreign language classes at 7:30, or pay tens of thousands of dollars to get sexiled out of our dorm rooms? From Corn Nation:
The tipping point for the MOOC revolution will come when corporations begin to accept a MOOC-based degree as equivalent to a traditional degree.
That's true, but there isn't really any evidence that we're near that point. When students pay to go to college, they aren't just paying for knowledge transfer (which some students could get from a book or website), and they aren't just paying for access to networking opportunities (which may end up being just as important as what was in your books). They're paying for the *credential*. You pay tens of thousands of dollars for that fancy piece of paper that says you have completed satisfactory coursework from an accredited institution.
Right now, MOOCs are only offering the knowledge transfer. If you just need a quick and dirty way to learn a programming language, or are intellectually curious about a certain subject for it's own sake, a MOOC can be a great resource. Ohio State, along with many of the premier research institutions in the US, participates in Coursea, where one can sign up for lots of free classes. I've taken a few myself, including a business class from the University of Michigan. Don't tell Luke. It could be our little secret.
The problem is, I can't really put those classes on my resume, put them towards MBA coursework, stick 'em on my LinkedIn profile, etc. Somebody who tries to give themselves a poor man's college degree from stuff they grab from Coursea or other places won't enjoy one of the biggest reasons to have a degree: the credentialing that works as a critical workplace signal.
There is a good reason for this. MOOC's may be able to cram 200k students into a class, but they haven't shown they can effectively support that many, or grade their performance. The completion rate for a typical MOOC class is staggeringly low, only 7%, in part because a low barrier to entry means students are less likely to make the commitment to finish the class, and in part because such a massive student load means students feel unsupported. Online education that charges tuition doesn't do much better, as the University of Phoenix only had a 16% graduation rate. A class that could effectively grade students purely on multiple choice questions, perhaps a mathematics course, maybe be able to get away with this, but how could a Political Science, or an English class, grade 50K essays? Assessments that replied purely on bubble exams would be hard pressed to hit the higher levels of Blooms Taxonomy, which would really damage the course's ability to measure mastery of content.
Because of that, there isn't really an incentive for a hiring manager (somebody like me) to start taking that coursework as seriously as a credentialed university education. With a labor pool typically featuring more college educated applicants than jobs, I (and other firms) can afford to be pickier. It's possible that changes, but it would require significant changes in both the administration and design of MOOC coursework, and in the labor market. I'd feel comfortable with saying those are more than two decades away.
Even if somehow MOOCs or similar coursework delivery systems are able to quickly ramp up their prestige and delivery to become an effective credential in the marketplace at a discount cost, that doesn't mean that the market for a traditional brick and mortar school would vanish. On the contrary, a budget, completely self-directed higher education experience would still only be effective for specific kinds of learners or majors. Those who are very self driven, do not require a lot of feedback, are not interested in networking and do not require expensive lab equipment may function very well in this environment, but that certainly isn't every student. It's worth noting that online education is particularly new (it's been done at the K12 level for over a decade), and those standardization questions haven't been effectively answered yet. I worked for an online K12 school in college, and it was easy to see the students who were in situations where success was not likely in that environment.
Buuut, lets say somehow, low-cost, online education somehow was popularized, AND structured to benefit multiple learning types. THEN is that a threat to big time college football, at least in the short term? Nah.
Even if all the above happened, a huge, land-grant institution benefits from outsized political, economic and cultural clout, AND can offer alumni access to a large, built-in network after graduation. With hundreds of thousands of alumni, and a huge research base, OSU isn't in danger of closing if they suddenly served 10, 15, 20,000 fewer students, at least in the short term. The same thing goes for the Nebraskas, the Michigans, the UCLAs, the Wisconsins, etc. It might mean that we're not going to see more buildings like the RPAC, truly the Taj Mahal of student gyms, but I don't see why institutions with different revenue streams and institutional backing would be the first to go.
If anything, changing economic conditions would spell trouble for a type of institution that doesn't sponsor high level college football, the smaller liberal arts school. As prices climb, more and more students may decide that paying 36k to go to a place like Kenyon or Denison isn't a smart investment, when you can get a comparable education at Ohio State (btw, if any high school junior is reading this, that's absolutely true. It's not worth the money) for half the cost. Smaller, expensive schools without access to gobs of research grants or deep endowments may find themselves without a market if MOOCs become credible college alternatives. The elite of the elite will still be around, and the larger state schools can slide up in prestige (ohh, you went to a brick and mortar college. Fancy), but perhaps the Oberlin types will struggle. That's happened before in Ohio, not that long ago.
It is awfully tough to predict what will happen in college football over the next 20 years, and the smart money is probably on a substantially different system than what we have now, either from lawsuits, health reasons, TV, a breakup of the NCAA, or something else entirely. If you graduated from a major FBS university though, I'd feel better about that school sticking around for the next few decades though, albeit probably not quite as fancy as before.
Note: I realize that this is a potentially sensitive topic that stretches into many political issues. I trust our readers to be able to discuss those issues thoughtfully and respectively. If that doesn't turn out to be the case, I'll start hiding comments.