The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

Back in the Sixties you could barely wander into a campus coffeehouse without encountering a guy with a guitar singing a reedy version of Bob Dylan's "The Times They are a Changin." (Trust us on this. We were there.)

Online education picToday, that song could stand as the anthem for post-secondary education.

The days when all college education occurred on campuses and computerized education was characterized by a curated stack of punched cards (we were there too), have been challenged by a skyrocketing growth in online education.

Online higher education experienced an estimated growth of 131 percent, Mike Goldstein, an attorney with Cooley LLC, who specializes in higher education issues, told a session on Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education, during NCSL's Legislative Summit.

"The internet created the 'disaggregated university' and today we have the 'disintegrated university.' Not that it's falling apart it's just no longer and integrated entity. That's an important distinction," he said.

Citing Purdue's acquisition of for-profit Kaplan and the creation of a NewU non-profit online university, Goldstein said the new for-profit universe "has become a support network, some of which is propping up existing institution and some competing with them."

He also noted Western Governors' University, on online, competency-based university with more than 80,000 students. The school has affiliation agreements with six states, which offer students a variety of financial assistance.

"What has happened is the ability of learners to pick and choose among this panoply of service providers and enablers to build and put together their own education, their own credentials in what has now become a marketplace economy of higher education this is dramatically different from anything we have seen before," he said.

Because of the rapid changes, he said, post-secondary regulation at the state level is pretty firmly stuck in the 1980s.

What does this turmoil in college education mean for states? Goldstein offered a quartet of issues:

  • The old hierarchy of organizationally integrated institutions is being replaced by a non-hierarchical network of discrete providers.
  • Student choice is no longer a single decision of where to go, but multiple parallel choices of where to go, for what, when and how that changes over time..
  • For-profit schools are declining in absolute numbers and market share, but the involvement of the for-profit sector in higher education is rapidly increasing.
  • The current regulatory and financing structure at all levels are ill-equipped to manage these changes.

"In the past, we have looked at institutions. In the future we're going to be looking at learners as students, as citizens, and how do we provide an educational system that best supports their needs and their interests," he said.

And for those who still yearn for those bygone campus-oriented times, well, Dylan is still touring.

Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.

Email Mark.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.