Sunday, November 27, 2005

Substitutes in the eye of the perceiver

A few years ago (I am not sure when) Prof. Ed Mills wrote (I am not sure where) that the internet was the way we would share unambiguous messages but that ambiguous messages (he cited a seminar as an example) would best be exchanged the old fashioned way.

This seemed reasonable. Harry Richardson and I wrote (somewhere) that the market would sort all of this out. That was also reasonable.

In the Nov 28 Forbes, David Gelernter writes "Who Needs a College Campus ... A new free market in higher education will turn the academy on its head." (Sorry, link to the article not available.) He also notes that the "world's top universities will exist forever. They sell tradition and mystique, which are always in demand. But outside the top tier, more and more students will discover that electronic courses offer education with less fun, less atmosphere, less political nonsense -- and a lot more choice and less cost."

Then there is the world depicted by Tom Wolfe in I Am Charlotte Simmons. Wolfe has taken some heat from some who think his rendering of modern undergraduate life was over the top.

Distance-learning technology will only get better and Gelernter's vision will surely offer a combination of price and quality that appeals to a growing segment. But it is all about how good or how bad the substitute is perceived to be -- and by how many.

In the interim, increasing affluence will continue to expand the demand for a lengthened adolescence. Undergrad life, as it is marketed and packaged today, is the market's finely tuned response. My guess is that the resulting mix of hedonism and credentialing and learning will continue to beguile large numbers of families -- who will continue to pick up the large tab for what they deem is the vastly preferred substitute.