Consider Hampden-Sydney College – 1775 – 2013….and beyond.

When troubling challenges arise – as in Hampden-Sydney’s election night racial donnybrook, or Harvard University’s very recent academic sanctions against 60 students – forced to withdraw over a cheating scandal, one is reminded of the late John Wayne’s observation: “Courage is being scared to death….and saddling up anyway.”

“Saddling up” are what authorities of educational institutions, private and small, state and sizeable, will be facing including those of our exquisite liberal arts college in Hampden -Sydney, VA  23943. These aren’t small potatoes.

Nathan Harden’s piece, The End of the University as We Know It, is a show-stopping, cold-sobering analysis – aimed at current higher education with the power of a massive meteor in fiery flight. HIs narrative is grim business:  “In fifty years…half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist with technology driving revolutionary changes which are unstoppable.”

Harden, a 2009 Yale graduate, editor of The College Fix, a higher education web site, is convinced college level education will become free for everyone; our beautiful residential campus at Hampden-Sydney (all colleges) will become obsolete, professors by the tens of thousands will lose their jobs; bachelor’s degree will stand in irrelevancy; in only ten years, Harvard University will enroll 10 million students.

This uncontrollable “college bubble” is balloon size, chasing us with huge levels of student debt – an average of $23,000 per graduate by “some counts.”  We all know about tuition costs – its rates far outdistancing inflation for decades. The conclusion: credential inflation is devaluing the sought-after college degree, dictating higher graduate degree requirements….spending of even more tuition debt.

Harden takes no prisoners: “when the bubble bursts, it will end a system of college education that, for all of its history, has been stepped in a culture of exclusivity. We’ll witness the birth of something entirely new as we accept one central and unavoidable fact: The college classroom is about to go virtual.”

He believes that our surrender to the upheaval and anxiety from these technological shifts is a given. Major changes on the horizon include:

  • The live in-person lecture will disappear replaced by the streaming of videos.
  • Then there is (MOOCs), “massive open online courses”; this new breed of online courses will alter forever the way universities teach and clients learn. Harden points out that the real value of MOOCs “is their scalability”. For instance, these online courses from a Stanford computer science professor by 2011 enrolled 100,000 students.
  • Administration of exams and exchange of course work over the internet will become a norm.
  • The give and take (discourse) of academic exchange will be solidly found on the interactive online spaces with our hyper-connected youth, latest tablet versions in hand, continuing to spend their time where they’ve comfortably learned to reside.
  • Those surviving colleges/universities now geographically boundless, unlimited by state lines, or time zones, offering course variety at a fraction of today’s cost, will be the survivors.
  • “Big budgeted universities carrying large transactional costs stand to lose the most. Smaller, more nimble institutions with sound leadership will do best”.

This shake down of our current university/college system could be merciless, yet the student will gain a near-universal access to a high quality of teaching, scholarship – at minimum cost. It frightens to think the Hampden-Sydney College experience of Georgian buildings, beautiful campuses, and wonderful libraries, with sometime eccentric but brilliant professors, generating life-long friendships, will evaporate – faster than we think.

Here’s what’s really frightens. Nathan Harden reminds it’s easy to forget only 10 years ago Facebook was unknown. Teens now approaching college years are member of the first generation to have matured conducting a major part of their social lives…online. These students are prepared to engage both professors and fellow students online – in ways not known to their immediate predecessors.

Interestingly, elite schools will now educate the masses “as well as the select few.” What about the social experience? Learning from peer exchanges in informal dorm bull sessions can result in successful social networking. Hampden-Sydney College enjoys some success in leading its graduates to solid jobs – particularly landing potential careers in strong markets for its accomplished graduates.

Harden assures that the gap between the online experience and the in-person experience (residential) continues to close. He sees a targeted, customized curriculum planned by students, which will lead them to construct identifiable resumes aimed for potential employers. This fantasy-like dynamic is never ending….it may not be fantasy at all.

The university system has looked the same for nearly a thousand years….classrooms, professors, students at desks, engaging the professors. Lecture and library have been the nucleus of it all. Sadly, my public school teaching experience allows me to understand Nathan Harden when he writes; “Deep engagement with texts and passionate learning aren’t the prevailing characteristics of most college classrooms today. More common are grade inflation, poor student discipline, and apathetic teachers’ rubberstamping students just to keep them paying tuition for one more term.”

This isn’t true in Hampden-Sydney VA….not now, not yet. Saddling up to face these challenges is all consuming. Will all these developments really go down? Thomas N. Allen,  ‘60, H-SC’s Board Chairman, and I discussed all this over lunch recently – we deeply worried together.