Bridges to Nowhere, Classrooms for No One

By Thomas K. Lindsay

(Photo of Keble College, Oxford, via the Cornell University Library Flickr feed)

There’s a lot of construction going on here. That’s a good sign – shows this school’s on its way up.” So announced my dad during our first drive around my college campus. It’s a common sentiment, and not an unreasonable one. After all, new construction signifies growth—in population, revenues, and aspirations. It’s also clever politics. Jobs are created and expectations bolstered, at least for a few seasons, and majestic ribbon-cutting ceremonies make the nightly news and thrill alumni boosters.

But is expanding the campus always good policy? In the face of the massive transformation in higher education led by online learning, this is less than clear.

As state legislatures across the country begin to entertain the annual requests by state colleges and universities for new construction funding, their members need to look beyond the immediate electoral cycle and take the longer view on the likely need, or lack thereof, of new construction for higher-education classroom buildings. Specifically, they need to ask whether, in the years that transpire between legislative approval, contract bidding, excavation, and completion of the new classroom structure – roughly three to four years – there will be any students to occupy the envisioned halls.

A sober examination of the growth in enrollment in online college courses suggests that caution is called for before we confidently declare the next new-classroom building project shovel-ready. For the last nine years, the Babson Survey Research Group, in collaboration with the College Board, has tracked online learning through surveys of over 2,500 academic leaders across the country. Its latest survey testifies that online learning has skyrocketed in the last decade.

“The rate of growth in online enrollments is ten times that of the rate in all higher education," writes the study’s co-author, I. Elaine Allen. According to the survey’s web site, 31 percent of higher education students currently are enrolled in one or more online courses. Over 6 million students enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year. More telling still, the 10 percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the 2 percent growth in the overall higher education student population. Moreover, two-thirds of the higher education institutions surveyed testified that online education today has become critical to their long-term education strategy.

Online education is making its presence felt not only at the college, but also the K-12, level. Education experts Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn predict that, by 2019, 50  percent of all courses for grades 9-12 will be taken online—“the vast majority of them in blended-learning school environments with teachers, which will fundamentally move learning beyond the four walls and traditional arrangement of today’s all-too-familiar classroom.” Another prediction comes from former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. In a September 2012 speech, she declared that, “by 2015, the number of students who are taking classes exclusively in physical brick-and-mortar spaces will shrink by two-thirds.”

Some members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives get it. Among a suite of cost-cutting measures they proposed in 2012 was HB 2444, a bill that would impose a two-year moratorium on “certain new construction, maintenance and renovation projects” for public higher education. The bill died last summer, but its rationale grows only more powerful. 

However, in the legislature in my home state of Texas, there appears as yet little concern that online-learning’s laser-speed ascension will render further public-college classroom building unnecessary. This is understandable. Texas, unlike Pennsylvania, is growing rapidly in population. For some time now, one thousand Americans a day have been voting with their feet and fortunes for the Texas model of lower taxes, less-burdensome regulations, and limited government. It is natural for legislators to expect that, just as these new Texans will require new housing construction, so too will their children need additional college-classroom buildings.

But this expectation, to prove valid, needs first to face without blinking one unassailable fact: Today’s students live and study more and more in their cyber-connected heads, not in bricks-and-mortar classrooms. University requests for new-building funds can no longer be treated on a business-as-usual basis.

Even if the Texas legislature comes to reckon with this fact, individual legislators will still face the pressure to fund new classroom buildings from the colleges and universities, alumni included, located in their districts. Precisely such constituent-generated pressure was part of the strategic plan of a former chairman of the Board of Regents of a Texas university system, who, legend has it, announced his intention to build a branch campus of his university in as many senatorial districts as possible.

Moreover, the facts of the explosion in online learning are less likely to appeal to the short-term interests of college presidents, for whom it’s a time-tested fundraising tactic to offer large donors the honor of having their names placed in large type on the front a bright new edifice that will stand for many years to come. The appeal of this offer of immortality can be irresistible to some among the well-heeled, fueling what has come to be called the higher-education “edifice complex.”

Given all these forces, it may prove impossible for legislators in Texas and elsewhere to act with the foresight required to serve their states’ long-term interests well. Nevertheless, their fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers who elected them requires that they at least investigate seriously whether there is in fact a need for the volume of higher-education construction that they will be asked to approve this session. If they don’t, they will bear responsibility for shortly having to mothball buildings that prove only to be mausoleums to a model of education now deceased.

 

Thomas K. Lindsay, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and author (with Gary Glenn) of Investigating American Democracy (Oxford University Press).

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