It’s a few years from now and you’re sitting in your office in an old Victorian building in your new position as Dean of Students. You thought that this would be the perfect job in a small university town with an easy walk to work, great colleagues and eager new students each year. However, you are looking at enrolment for this year and it’s down 30%. You have a major problem and you have some explaining to do about last year’s recruiting drive. What’s going on?
Online degrees now compete quite fiercely with “traditional universities”, especially those from reputable institutions that only charge $6,000 versus your current tuition fees of $45,000 for a Bachelor’s degree. However, you cannot decrease your fees as you’re facing rising costs. Just heating the dorms is an ever-increasing part of your budget, with oil at $3.50 a litre. You’ve even discussed shifting the academic calendar to take advantage of the warmer Summer months. On top of that, the university just negotiated a costly settlement with the faculty association, after a prolonged strike.
Robert Cringely explained the situation in 2008, but few schools or universities took action:
This [education] is an unstable system. Homeschooling, charter schools, these things didn’t even exist when I was a kid, but they are everywhere now. There’s only one thing missing to keep the whole system from falling apart – ISO certification.
I’ve written about this for years and nobody ever paid attention, but ISO certification is what destroyed the U.S. manufacturing economy. With ISO 9000 there was suddenly a way to claim with some justification that a factory in Malaysia was precisely comparable to an IBM plant on the Hudson. Prior to then it was all based on reputation, not statistics. And now that IBM plant is gone.
Daniel Lemire likened it to a similar business phenomenon:
Not long ago people bought European electronics because it was supposedly better. Now? These days are long gone.
At a certain point in time (2008?) the cost-benefits of a university education will be put in question. How expensive does it have to be before the majority opt out or look for “good enough” options? Once a certification body gets recognized by enough employers, it could become the de facto as well as the de jure standard.