To the battery of higher-education questions Gov. Tim Pawlenty posed to TV host Jon Stewart and his June 10 "Daily Show" audience, we'll take a stab at answers: No, yes and yes, and no.
No: We don't think that in 20 years undergraduates from the suburbs will be driving their own cars to classes at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus most days. Few do now -- and solo auto transportation is only going to become more expensive.
But we think they'll keep coming, though perhaps not every day, by bus, rail, bicycle and on foot, as well as the occasional auto. That's because no matter how much learning they do online, they'll still want something today's college students tell us they crave more than ever -- personal relationships with their faculty and fellow students. College students we know say those connections are crucial to learning. (So thanks, governor, for jawboning the university to get over its objections to Central Corridor.)
Yes and yes: Established colleges and universities will deliver classes in e-ways that go well beyond classroom lectures. They already do.
Though it got off to a slow start in the 1990s, online delivery of classes has exploded at Minnesota's public places of higher learning. It's now typical for classes at the University of Minnesota to contain an online component, reports Tom Sullivan, the university's provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.
A smaller share of classes -- 1,600 at the U, 8,500 at MnSCU institutions -- are "predominantly" online, defined by MnSCU as requiring no fewer than two face-to-face meetings between student and professor. But even those classes will reach more than 90,000 MnSCU and 20,000 U students this year. Those numbers are bound to grow -- but they may not grow as rapidly as Pawlenty thinks. That's because of what educators told us about his last question.
No: It's not likely that online college classes -- those worth taking, anyway -- will be available anytime soon at $199 per class. Neither is it likely that moving to more online classes will save money for colleges, universities and the governments that finance them -- at least not in the near term.
In fact, developing and updating online classes is so labor-intensive that they are more likely to drive up costs than to save money, said Sullivan. In some classes, those costs can be amortized over a number of years, bringing per-student costs down. But many classes require frequent updates to incorporate new knowledge and developments. It's no wonder that in the competitive world of for-profit higher education, tuition per class is nowhere near Pawlenty's proverbial $199. For example, a three-credit upper-division undergraduate course at Capella University costs $1,035. Eventually, more online instruction could lead to fewer buildings on campuses -- though the most expensive college buildings, the science labs, also offer the kind of instruction least susceptible to being supplanted by virtual experiences.
Pawlenty described his iCollege vision in response to Stewart's questions about how to reduce the size and cost of government. His vision looks attractive as a strategy for making higher learning more widely and conveniently available. But as a quick, cost-saving strategy for government, it's out of focus.