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College for $99 a Month

The next generation of online education could be great for students -- and catastrophic for universities.

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What happens when the number of students making that choice reaches a critical mass? Consider the fate of the newspaper industry over the last five years. Like universities, newspapers relied on financial cross-subsidization to stay afloat, using fat profits from local advertising and classifieds to prop up money-losing news bureaus. This worked perfectly well until two things happened: the Internet made opinion and news content from around the world available for nothing, and the free online classified clearinghouse Craigslist obliterated newspapers’ bedrock revenue source, the want ads. Suddenly, people didn’t need to buy a newspaper to read news, and the papers’ ability to subsidize expensive reporting with ad revenue was crippled. The result: plummeting newspaper profits leading to a tidal wave of layoffs and bankruptcies, and the shuttering of bureaus in Washington and abroad.

Like Craigslist, StraighterLine threatens the most profitable piece of a conglomerate business: freshman lectures, higher education’s equivalent of the classified section. If enough students defect to companies like StraighterLine, the higher education industry faces the unbundling of the business model on which the current system is built. The consequences will be profound. Ivy League and other elite institutions will be relatively unaffected, because they’re selling a product that’s always scarce and never cheap: prestige. Small liberal arts colleges will also endure, because the traditional model—teachers and students learning together in a four-year idyll—is still the best, and some people will always be willing and able to pay for it.

But that terrifically expensive model is not what most of today’s college students are getting. Instead, they tend to enroll in relatively anonymous two- or four-year public institutions and major in a job-oriented field like business, teaching, nursing, or engineering. They all take the same introductory courses: statistics, accounting, Econ 101. Teaching in those courses is often poor—adjunct-staffed lecture halls can be educational dead zones—but until recently students didn’t have any other choice. Regional public universities and nonelite private colleges are most at risk from the likes of StraighterLine. They could go the way of the local newspaper, fatally shackled to geography, conglomeration, and an expensive labor structure, too dependent on revenues that vanish and never return.

By itself, the loss of profitable freshman courses would be devastating. And in the long run, Web-based higher education may not stop there. Companies like StraighterLine have the hallmarks of what Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen and entrepreneur Michael Horn describe as “disruptive innovation.” Such services tend to start small and cheap, targeting a sector of the market that established players don’t care much about—like tutoring in introductory courses. “This allows them to take root in simple undemanding applications,” Christensen and Horn write. “Little by little, the disruption predictably improves… And at some point, disruptive innovations become good enough to handle more complicated problems and take over, and the once-leading companies with old-line products go out of business.”

The pattern has played out in industries ranging from transistors to compact cars. When Japanese companies like Honda first began selling small, fuel-efficient cars in America, the vehicles were markedly inferior to the chrome- festooned behemoths rolling off the assembly lines of invincible Detroit giants like Ford and General Motors. But they were also inexpensive—and, when gas prices skyrocketed in the 1970s, suddenly more attractive as well. Japanese cars gradually improved while American companies lapsed into complacency, and the rest is history.

Econ 101 for $99 is online, today. 201 and 301 will come. It’s no surprise, then, that as soon as Burck Smith tried to buck the system, the system began to push back.

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