Few magazine editors—myself included—can resist a dash of apocalypse in a cover line, which is why I don't fault writer Graeme Wood for the question on the front of this month’s Atlantic: “Is College Doomed?” I'll answer that question anyway: no. The appetite for college is huge. A larger percentage of Americans are pursuing some sort of post-high-school degree than ever before—70 percent in 2009, compared to 45 percent in 1960—and that number keeps rising. Undergraduate education isn’t going away any time soon.
Wood's article, actually titled "The Future of College?," is a profile of the Minerva Project, a new, low-cost, for-profit university that offers intensive seminars on a cool new online “proprietary platform.” It’s Ben Nelson, Minerva’s 39-year-old founder and CEO, who says that colleges as we know them are doomed, because his half-online, half-bricks-and-mortar university is going to disrupt and replace them. Wood is seduced by the prospect, although ultimately he doubts that Nelson could or even should succeed. In describing what makes Nelson’s pitch appealing, however, Wood accepts several premises about the dismal state of higher education that are now so widely held that perhaps he didn't feel it necessary to defend them. If the following three premises are true, then it is indeed possible that “a whole category of legacy institutions” will have to be liquidated, in Wood’s phrase. But they are not true.