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Continuing Studies

This column was written by Ross Douthat.

Among Harvard undergraduates, the open-enrollment Harvard Extension School – whose continuing education program offers a Harvard diploma, of sorts, to anyone willing to pay a modest fee – maintains a faintly sketchy reputation, and not without reason.

A homeless man who attempted, with some success, to take up residence in my freshman dorm was a part-time Extension School student; so was my notorious "classmate," Ed Meinert, an ambitious George Washington University dropout who posed as an undergraduate and conned several campus organizations into allowing him to join up. At a school where students are encouraged to think of themselves as deserving members of the world's most exclusive club, the Extension Schoolers are the gate-crashers – frustrated Cambridge housewives picking up ancient Greek in their spare time; disheveled autodidacts with an unhealthy Harvard obsession.

Or at least so we always thought. But then last week, the New York Times profiled the new breed of Extensionistas – not the balding weirdos who play chess in Harvard Square and clutch dog-eared copies of Gravity's Rainbow, but relatively normal college-age kids who could have been admitted to a "real" school, but decided instead to pick up a Harvard diploma on the cheap. They're experiencing a version of college without dorms or advisers, in which they watch lectures online and take classes at night – and they might be pointing the way to a better, more democratic approach to higher education.

Obviously, Ivy League Extension Schools aren't a magic-bullet solution to the biggest challenge facing the American meritocracy – namely, that a system intended to produce equality of opportunity is functioning more and more like the class-bound system of advancement it was intended to replace. But they're part of a larger boom in continuing education, distance-learning, and for-profit schools, all of which offer affordable ladders upward for those Americans who grow up outside the posh, U.S. News-obsessed circles of the upper-middle-class.

It's a boom, unfortunately, whose lessons haven't yet been absorbed by most of the people who think deep thoughts about the future of higher education. These thinkers tend to focus on the concerns of the best and the brightest, and understandably so: Whether you're convening a panel of experts to discuss the fate of the liberals arts curriculum (as Slate did last week), or publishing a memoir of your bright college years, it's much more interesting to ponder the ideal college curriculum, or pontificate about how Harvard and Yale should go about forming their students' characters, than to worry about what's happening at the bottom of the higher-ed ladder, in the regional state schools and the community colleges and for-profit academies like Strayer and the University of Phoenix.

And when higher-ed watchers do get around to the innovation going on below the U.S. News radar, they usually recoil in horror at the grubbiness of it all – and particularly at the cost-cutting tactics of the for-profit education sector, which serves low-income students but does so with a bottom-line mentality that's alien to the way that most educated people think, or like to think, about the ideal of a college education. So it was unsurprising to find, in Slate's "College Week," Anya Kamenetz offering the liberal case against the for-profit school – that "the prevalence of fraud, waste, and abuse in these schools from their origins down to the present day is a clear signal that turning a profit, not serving students, is their top priority," and that "when students equal revenue, the pressure is on to pack them in and charge them as much as the market will bear."

This is true enough, as far as it goes, and the conservatives who champion profit-driven higher ed need to be aware of its pitfalls. But there ought to be a third way, between fretting over a University of Phoenix-style bottom-line mentality and uncritically embracing it – a way that would take the private sector's insights and put them to work for the public good. If Harvard can sell its resources at bargain prices and extend some of the benefits of an Ivy League education to students who wouldn't otherwise enjoy it, many other successful private colleges ought to be able to do the same. And more importantly, if public spending on higher education continues to fall – as it's likely to do, in an age of war and swelling entitlements – then there's no reason why America's vast system of public colleges and universities shouldn't be able to take a page from the for-profit book, and educate far more students at a far lower cost than was ever possible before.

Thanks to the internet, we've entered an age where a college education doesn't need to be as constrained, in time and space, as it did in the age before streaming video and online libraries. The old-fashioned campus experience – the leafy quads and wood-paneled classrooms, the dorm-room arguments and late-night pub crawls – may be the ideal way to experience college, but it's neither available nor well-suited to the needs of most Americans. As public financial aid diminishes, it's prohibitively expensive for the public colleges in most states to enroll, house, and provide lecture halls to accommodate every student who wants a degree. And the traditional four-year residential model of college doesn't fit the needs of those students whose attempts to balance work and higher education usually require giving up on the latter, leading to what the Times described last year as a growing "college drop-out boom."

A more democratic model of higher education, then, might involve shifting federal and state dollars away from the large state schools, with their vast resources and their "beer-and-circus" atmosphere – and perhaps away from old-fashioned brick-and-mortar campuses altogether. This isn't how our mandarins usually think about democratizing college: When American liberals imagine expanding access to higher education, they tend to envision a wave of working-class achievers sweeping over the picturesque lawns of a Princeton or a Duke. But while elite schools ought to be doing more to diversify the class composition of their student bodies, the average degree-seeking American twenty-something will benefit more from a system of higher ed that's streamlined and flexible — that lets him work and take classes at the same time, watch lectures from home and read assignments online, graduate in 15 months or 5 years – than from all the financial aid dollars that an Ivy League school can muster.

Inevitably, such extension-school and distance-learning models of higher ed will be geared more toward practical training than toward the traditional liberal arts, and more likely to introduce a working-class striver to Peter Drucker and computer science than to Plato and the New Historicism. But even though the debate over the design of a liberal arts curriculum is important, it's also essentially an elite debate, affecting only a fraction of the nation's college-going population. The nation's "liberal arts college students," two college presidents recently pointed out, would "fit easily inside a Big Ten football stadium: fewer than 100,000 students out of more than 14 million." Whereas more than half of American undergrads are part-time students, and a third hold down full-time jobs. This is the population that any "public" system of higher education should be designed to serve – even if it means accepting some internet-age alterations to our nostalgic, groves-of-academe notions of what a "college education" ought to look like.

Ross Douthat is an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly, the author of "Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class," and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.

By Ross Douthat

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