Fortune columnist highlights battle for the future of higher education

If the college bubble is nearing its breaking point, Becky Quick‘s latest column in Fortune magazine might offer some details about the process that will lead to that break.

You may not realize it yet, but the battle lines for future generations’ college education are being drawn right now. On the one side, the old school is defending the traditional college experience — and all the costs associated with it. The new school is convinced that technology will transform learning: increasing productivity and making higher ed more accessible, all while maintaining, or even improving, the quality of the educational experience.

The universities’ Achilles’ heel? Ever-increasing costs. Tuition, fees, room, and board exceed $55,000 a year at Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale, and top $20,000 annually even at state schools like Indiana and Ohio State. That pricey cost of admission puts a traditional college degree — and the access it gives to the American dream — nearly out of reach for all but the privileged few. Enter the disrupters, like Udacity and Coursera. These for-profit startups offer online courses taught by some of the top professors in the world for free or at low cost, but for now at least, these programs aren’t designed as substitutes for an undergraduate degree. They simply complement a conventional undergrad experience or offer additional training for postgraduates.

Then there are the generals in this war who are hoping to turn higher education on its head. Bob Kerrey, a former governor and senator from Nebraska, used to operate within the legions of the old school as the president of the New School, a not-so-new university. (It was in founded in 1919.) Kerrey went AWOL from conventional academia and today serves as executive chairman for the research and scholarship arm of the Minerva Project, which promises an Ivy League-quality education at less than half the price. Minerva Schools will offer online courses. But unlike the others, Minerva will limit class size to 20 students or fewer to guarantee personal attention and a true connection between the students and professors.


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