The recent “disruption” of higher education has been driven by two distinct yet interrelated forces: the increasingly unaffordable cost of college attendance and the liberation of information through wireless mass communication. The former is an issue that has been exacerbated by trends in both state funding and disposable income; both have declined in the wake of economic recession, and neither seem likely to return to previous levels any time soon. This has put tremendous financial pressure on institutions of higher learning, as the dearth of public funding is compounded by the growing unwillingness of American families to compensate by paying higher tuition costs. Colleges have thus been forced into a precarious balancing act between fostering increased enrollment and raising the net tuition extracted from each student. For many schools this has resulted in a downward spiral toward insolvency, especially for lower-tier liberal arts colleges. With a dramatic change in economic trajectory unlikely, many institutions will be forced to either radically alter their approach, or fade away.
The rise in tuition cost has brought with it increased disillusionment toward traditional modes of higher education, creating demand for innovation. With recent advancements in computer technology and the advent of the internet, there now exists genuine alternatives to the traditional brick-and-mortar college. While economic obstacles have led many to question the viability of these long-standing institutions, the rise of wireless communication has led others to question their relevance. Universities can no longer claim to be the keepers of knowledge for a world armed with Google, and with such a concession their existence can no longer be simply taken for granted. Traditional institutions must prove that they have unique virtues which render them necessary in the modern world, a challenge as daunting as its outcome is uncertain. Will higher education become dominated by online colleges and virtual instruction? Many innovators are eager to make this a reality, but the full ramifications of such a transition remains unclear. Regardless, higher education is now at a crossroads—the monopoly has been disrupted, and the competitors have awoken.