MSN MONEY. FEBRUARY 14, 2013. According to a recent cover story in The American Interest, some won't look like anything at all, because they'll cease to exist. Author Nathan Harden estimates that in 50 years, half of the approximately 4,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. will go belly up.
How could this happen? Through technology, he argues. Virtual classrooms, lectures through streaming videos, online exams -- we've already seen these innovations crop up at major academic institutions, but they'll proliferate on a much larger scale and disrupt the higher education system as we know it.
Harvard and MIT already have the online education venture edX, while Stanford has Coursera and has formed agreements with Penn, Princeton, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan to manage their online education programs.
Harden also predicts that as online education becomes more widespread, a college-level education will soon be free (or cost just a minimal amount) for everyone in the world, and that the bachelor's degree will become irrelevant.
"If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before," he argues. "We may lose the gothic arches, the bespectacled lecturers, dusty books lining the walls of labyrinthine libraries, but nostalgia won't stop the unsentimental beast of progress from wreaking havoc on old ways of doing things."
Prestigious institutions, he says, will be in the best position to adapt, while for-profit colleges and low-level public and nonprofits will be the first to disappear. "Universities of all ranks below the very top will engage each other in an all-out war of survival. In this war, big-budget universities carrying large transactional costs stand to lose the most. Smaller, more nimble institutions with sound leadership will do best," he writes.