Could the college campus go the way of the bookstore?

Lauren Williams's picture
Tuesday, January 14, 2014

When it comes to the frenzied advent of the MOOC, the massive open online courses that have been threatening to upend higher education, no college wants to be perceived as old school. For some, there is a very real danger of becoming no school.

With all this potential for upheaval, the physical makeup of institutions of higher learning is being called into question, too. As the business of education moves online, is the traditional quadrangle-dormitory-lecture hall-library configuration really going to be necessary? Could the college campus go the way of – gulp – the bricks-and-mortar bookstore?

To the extent that the college experience still requires a physical presence, some are indeed predicting a radical overhaul of academic infrastructure. "We may eventually see the rise of 'hoteling' for college students whose courses are done primarily online," suggested a recent Wall Street Journal story "Build a nice campus—or buy one, from a defunct traditional school—put in a lot of amenities, but don't bother hiring faculty: Just bring in your courses online, with engineering from Georgia Tech, arts and literature from Yale, business from Stanford and so on. Hire some unemployed PhD's as tutors (there will be plenty around, available at bargain-basement rates) and offer an unbundled experience. It's a business model that just might work, especially in geographic locations students favor. Grand Cayman is awfully nice this time of year."

That kind of geographic change – from Cleveland to the Caribbean – would be very bad news for communities that have come to count on large nonprofits as economic engines, employment centers, and development partners.

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