This Is The Way The Higher Education Bubble Ends...

Recalling T.S Eliot’s The Hollow Men, “not with a pop but a fizzle.” The higher education bubble ends with inevitable disaggregation of classes from the universities that offer them, and soon. No bang but a slow whimpering hiss. Classes, lectures, minors and majors are now being created by IT champions in partnership with credentialed professors and stored on racks outside of the university, then sold back to the universities to accredit them. This is the trajectory of folks like Udacity, Kahn Academy and others who have been creating courses separate from accrediting institutions. That is disaggregation. MIT and Harvard are developing their own joint web site to head this off. But the lid is already off the university’s course creating privilege. Now even Harvard has to compete with every rogue philosopher with an Internet connection.

The University is becoming a “white hat” Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy to bring in the students, because only accredited “XYZ Universities” hold the wand of certification. But even that is only temporary. Imagine Harvard and Yale undergraduate degrees, like the Educational Testing Service (ETS) that administers the SATs. When it comes to a BA or a BS all the Ivy’s will really provide are the Ivy League certified test results (a “Bachelor’s Degree”) of the free on-line education you received from the online classes you took from roaming on-line intellectuals. And who knows whom that Ivy school will ultimately farm out the brute labor of grading their certified tests, probably PhDs in Bangalore. Which makes sense since certified accountants in Bangalore already do vast millions Americans’ tax returns.

Professor Racks are coming: “GeekProfs” whose proprietary classes are stored and launched into the cloud from places like Web Hosting Geeks. The GeekProfs will be independent credentialed professors who use web sites designed for them by professional web designers. That is what the new much cheaper university classes and majors will look like. The age of disaggregated courses and majors created and taught by Professors without Buildings is upon us. Web Hosting services will soon house vast numbers of the on-line undergraduate courses that the wandering adjuncts will both own and teach for established Universities who in turn will serve the GeekProfs’ on-line courses as their own curricula. The long-exploited underpaid wandering adjunct professors will become the intellectual mercenaries of the Internet.

The coming age of GeekProfs returns us to the ancient Greece of Aristotle and the peripatetic teachers who wandered throughout the countryside selling wisdom. But now the classes will move, and the philosophers will stay in their coffee shops reaping residuals from their classes that travel without them. Saylor Foundation is already doing something like this and it, has been for years, and free to the students. Recently they teamed up with StraighterLine University to provide their accreditation.

Is your BS underwater? Are you upside down on your college mortgage? Many American students are, or certainly will be. By the end of the housing bubble, hordes of Americans who had taken out enormous mortgages found the houses they owned were no longer worth what they owed. Apply this to your college degree. What is the Return on Investment for your degree? Will your degree really be worth what you will owe to pay it off? It depends on where you went and in what you majored. How about that Sociology degree? Or Women’s Studies degree? Or even that, “Gee, my shrink seems rich” psychology degree. Probably not, if one of the main goal of your degree was to advance your professional life. As the higher ed bubble bulges to breaking, fewer degrees are giving profitable returns. Of course if your degree was a luxury expense, return on investment was never an issue. But for those of us who hoped to monetize our education. This is a serious problem. Just like those whose homes are now under water. Once the education really starts to fizzle, however, far fewer new undergraduate degrees will sink under water.

Why? Because when the cost of undergraduate degrees is based on what you know — what you learned relatively inexpensively from Prof Racks — well those of us for whom education is an investment rather than a luxury, will only go to the Web Hosting Prof Rack sites that actually teach us enough to pass the exams. Yeh, I admit it: I like high stakes testing. It means lower price, higher quality, higher education for the working class YouTuber. Brick and mortar university? “the twinkle of a fading star….”

Related: Kathy Shaidle’s 3 Reasons Higher Education Is Broken — and How To Fix It