Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science, Director of Human Life Studies, and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is In Defense of Nature: the Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.
The Catholic Church invented the university about a millennium ago. It isn’t an eternal institution, but it has lasted a very long time. Unhappily, the combination of economic pressures and virtual (online) classes may well bring its historical demise. I do not wish that to happen—I teach at Franciscan University—but the possibility is very real, and must be understood and addressed.
First, I want to begin with an economic lesson from an area outside education that offers a warning to us about the danger actual universities are facing. I call it the Amazon Effect.
Actual, physical bookstores have been around for hundreds of years—thousands, if you go back to the scroll stalls of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Amazon.com was started in 1994 by Jeff Bezos, whose personal net gain last year was almost 30 billion dollars. In a matter of a decade and a half, Amazon online—a virtual bookstore—eliminated an enormous swath of physical bookstores in the country, leaving only a relative handful of struggling, old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores. One man, in particular, got unimaginably rich as a result.
The reason that Amazon squashed the local bookstore, as well as major chains like Borders and Family Christian Stores, is economic. Physical bookstores cannot possibly compete. It costs a lot of money to maintain a physical bookstore, keep it stocked, have employees, etc. A virtual bookstore has far, far fewer employees than all the physical bookstores it replaces, and it just needs one really big warehouse (wherein employees may soon be replaced by robots).
Further, because Amazon is selling through the internet to millions of potential customers, rather than hundreds, it can afford to sell books with a much, much slimmer profit margin, and has the economic muscle to compel publishers to accept very slim profits (the latter we might call the Walmart Effect, since Walmart is notorious for strong-arming supplier companies into accepting extremely low per item profits).
So, what does that have to do with universities?
Lesson one for us. Just like the virtual mega-bookstore Amazon, virtual universities would be a vastly less expensive alternative to physical universities. They would have far fewer employees, and therefore, paralleling Amazon, would be able to cut the prices of online teaching to levels that physical universities cannot possibly match.
Could virtual universities replace physical universities? Well, ask yourself: Who would have thought that something so permanent as a physical bookstore could all but disappear in so short a time? Will the number of actual universities be reduced to a relative handful once the virtual university takes hold?
Here’s a second example of the Amazon Effect. Physical newspapers and magazines have been around for hundreds of years. When I first started writing for a living, back in 2000, I could actually feed my family from the money I got for writing for magazines—at least some months. Then the internet really started to take off. Magazines and newspapers themselves offered free online content in the hopes of—with the expectation of—drawing readers back to the print copy of their magazines and newspapers. The reverse happened, however. The online version quickly displaced the print versions. Magazine after magazine folded, and almost every major newspaper is now in financial crisis, cutting its staff accordingly. Online swallows actual.
Lesson two. More and more universities are offering online, virtual courses, assuming that these courses are secondary to the traditional goings-on at the brick-and-mortar origin. But in a parallel way to what happened to newspapers and magazines, online courses, originally meant to supplement traditional physical university offerings, could very well end up tipping the balance toward online offerings as primary, with the physical universities to a (fading) secondary position—or completely disappearing.
Could online teaching displace actual classroom teaching at the physical university? Ask yourself: Twenty years ago, when the internet was just kicking in, who would have thought online content could make venerable and profitable physical newspapers and magazines could vanish so quickly?
We must think deeply on this painful subject—we Catholic universities, especially. Why won’t what happened to physical bookstores and physical newspapers and magazines, happen to actual, physical universities? And why would Catholic universities be exempt from the Amazon effect?
What makes things even more difficult is that competition between existing, real universities for students is getting more and more fierce. There are several reasons for this.
In the mid-20th century, the government got the idea that everyone should be able to go to college. They started a grant and low-interest loan program that released millions upon millions of dollars for higher education, and the result was a boom-build in the number of universities, in the size of each university, and, most conspicuously, the cost of university education.
That boom is now a higher-education bubble: you’ve got a heavily subsidized “industry,” with a price-inflated product, and a shrinking demographic to fill seats in the classes. Many universities are under 50% capacity. (Franciscan University is, happily, an exception, at least for now. I can’t speak for other Catholic universities).
What will happen, economically, in such a situation? Well, what is already happening: a frantic competition for fewer students. Those students are faced with a real economic dilemma. A four-year college costs way too much. So, just like it costs a lot less to get a book from Amazon than your local physical bookstore, it costs a lot less to take a virtual, online course than it does to take one on an actual campus.
Shouldering $60,000 to $100,000 worth of loans for the four-year, on-campus experience is economically suicidal. Students will choose—in fact are, more and more, choosing—online courses over actual campus experience, and are doing so out of legitimate economic prudence. When universities offer more and more courses online to meet demand—which they must, to stay competitive—they ensure that fewer and fewer students will attend the actual, physical university (or if they do, will attend for less than four years).
What to do?—and here my real concern is the Catholic universities (to be more exact, orthodox Catholic universities).
First, there is no way to avoid offering online courses, and in some degree entering the realm of the virtual university. So, if it must be done at Catholic universities—and it already is being done—then it must be done really, really well (better than the secular universities against which we compete).
Second, the endowments of orthodox Catholic universities need to be increased super-substantially so that four-year, on-campus tuition and housing costs can be driven down—dare I say?—to the level that it costs students to take online courses. Why not attend the real Catholic university, if such were the case?
This second suggestion has the added benefit of removing Catholic universities from the grip of the federal government’s student loan program, one of the chief means it uses to impose political correctness (and worse) from above.
God grant us the wisdom and grace to do what needs to be done!