Vestigial: when, through an evolutionary process a part of an organism or organization no longer serves a useful purpose, we refer to it as being vestigial. For example, the appendix is a vestigial organ, except that like in many other cases where doctors have told us stuff that’s no longer true, the appendix does have a purpose. (The appendix is kind of a reboot kit for the large intestine where it stores our own internal version of Activia Yoghurt and has the active bacteria set aside for emergencies like when the rest of our bowel flushes itself out because of infection. But I digress.) For roughly ten years, about twenty years ago, I was closely involved with the newspaper industry and in the spirit of full disclosure, as well, I continue to dutifully read the New York Times every day, in paper form, and dispose of it properly in the recycling bin.
If we examine the newspaper industry business model twenty years ago, there were three major sources of revenue: classified advertising, other, typically retail advertising, and subscription fees. Generally, it was true that the subscription revenue paid for the printing and distribution but not the editorial staff which was paid for by the remaining two sources of income.
Over the last ten years, the Internet has decimated the newspaper model. Craig’s List has taken over the classifieds, and Google has seriously undermined the other advertising revenue. Both Internet models are cheaper and more easily measurable in their effectiveness. This has left the newspaper industry with quite a problem and newspapers all over the US are closing.
Now even twenty years ago it was obvious to me that there was redundancy in the business. Not being a significant sports fan myself, I would marvel at how many photographers would cover a not-very-special Boston Celtics basketball game. There was a Globe photographer, a Herald photographer, several wire services photographers and maybe even some independent stringers. To my eye one could interchange any of their photos, or even photos from prior games and I wouldn’t know the difference. It was clear back then that things were going to change, but not as much as they did and will.
It has become clear that younger people today don’t buy and read paper newspapers so there is a demographic shift that isn’t helping. And, along with the loss of revenue, there is obviously a significant increase in media choices that are available. The pressure is causing newspapers to be unable to sustain their editorial staffs at prior levels, and with good reason. Do we really need local experts to cover national or international topics? With the increase in communications speed and accuracy isn’t it more rational to pay the best writer (or a small group of writers) to cover a topic that they know in greater depth.
Now of course, I know the opposing argument about the need to keep a balanced and objective journalistic community, but there’s a limit to the number of opposing voices that are needed.
Just recently, online subscription sales of the New York Times for delivery over tablets and phones have been increasing and there may be light at the end of the tunnel. While it may be true that the printing presses (and the people who run them and the people who deliver the papers) will become vestigial, it may also be true that the Times will survive, unlike many other newspapers. There are just going to be fewer journalists in the coming years.
Over the last five years I’ve been teaching at Babson College and I am observing a similar trend and problem, yet we are earlier in the cycle. Like newspapers, the business model for colleges is also somewhat complicated. They get income from student tuitions, contributions from alum, government agencies and others, and some schools also participate in for-profit non-degree based education as well. And, as in the case of newspapers, technology and a change of demographics are applying significant pressure for change to the educational community.
In the short term, one change that I have already seen is that there are more foreign students on campus. One can rationalize this on the basis that these students value American education and are also willing to pay full load while the recession has made college unreachable for many Americans. Unfortunately, it should be noted that foreign students are notorious for not becoming contributing alumni after graduation. So, what you get today, you may lose tomorrow.
I, and many others, also believe that the tuition debt assumed by many students is unacceptable and must change.
We can also observe that there is substantial pressure from online educational services, some degree based, that are clearly cheaper in that they do not require the infrastructure of a campus. While there have been stumbles and blunders along the way with regards to over selling programs, one cannot deny the inevitable trend. Many top tier universities are offering online courses for free (currently without degree options) and some for fees and optional degrees.
Now it’s true that a college education has many values in addition to education. I count a total of five. First, it’s a safe, often first place from home, for kids with yet undeveloped frontal cortexes to hang out, drink beer and meet members of whatever sexual group they’re interested in. For four years they get to slowly ripen while remaining out of jail and in relative comfort.
Second, college is an opportunity to develop a lifelong network of friends.
Third, college is supposed to prepare a youngster for work and for a productive role in society.
Fourth, it’s supposed to open a student’s eyes to the myriad of undiscovered opportunities and possibilities that lie before them.
And finally, fifth, it can be a place to find adult mentorship and role models.
However, with the pressures evident from technology, it may be necessary to separate these different services and think about their delivery through different vehicles.
For the informational component of education, much like the newspaper industry, we are confronted with an interesting dilemma. If, for example, I’m interested in studying physics, am I better off taking an online (and free I should add) class from Richard Feynman (one of the leading educators from Cal Tech) or should I choose Professor Max Von Noname at a local community college? Does the speed, convenience and often lower cost of receiving the best outweigh the opposing value of “live” education from a likely mediocre alternative?
It would seem clear that some compromise is in order. We don’t really need a thousand physics teachers any more than we needed all those photographers at the Celtic’s game.
To accomplish the network that many build in school it is already evident that online social networks including dating sites are already impacting this aspect. It is possible that the creation of new virtual communities for those who are sharing a common educational experience is needed, along with newer tools, but it would appear that we are already on our way to seeing this change.
Even if we do away with the concept of the traditional four year college, we still need somehow to provide a safe haven for high school graduates, albeit maybe without the terraced lawns and comfy sofas. It’s possible that returning to a model of mandatory community service including the alternative of military services is possible with the consideration that housing needs must be met.
But, I teach at Babson because I really enjoy the interaction with the students, or kids as I like to refer to them (whether they’re under graduate or graduate). For me, it’s clearly not the money, as is true for all adjunct lecturers (not to be confused with full time professors who can be paid a whole bunch for doing very little and often don’t even like the students). And, if online education becomes dominant, how would my role as mentor be delivered?
Of late, I have been really impressed with my ability to connect to entrepreneurs elsewhere on the planet through video skype and conduct teaching and mentoring sessions that I’m certain are as effective as one-on-one live meetings. As well, I and several collaborators have started a business incubator called the IEC (http://iecpartners.com) where we intend to be able to continue to offer the mentorship without the trappings of the university.
So, newspapers and schools need to beware. Business models are under extraordinary pressure from technology and both are likely to be unrecognizable in a few years.