The Long Tail and Higher Ed

I keep waiting for the day when higher ed discovers The Long Tail.

Twenty years ago, if you wanted a master’s degree, you went to whatever university was nearby. You paid in-state tuition, if applicable. You kept your job and went to school in person at night.

Today, if you want a master’s degree, you have many more choices for degrees. Many offer a 100% online option, or “zero residency.” Some have low residency – part of a class in person, or a whole class in person in a compressed timeline. The idea is that you do your residency while taking a vacation from your job, if needed. But pretty much you can go to any school you want, on any timeline you want (full time or part time) and get the degree you want.

What is the difference between a MSCS at UMass, UVA, UMN, or UCLA? Why would I pick one school over the other?

You can say it’s all about the faculty, the location, the school’s reputation, the specific courses. These elements certainly drive many choices.

But truthfully, it comes down to price. It’s a MSCS. Everyone offers one of these. They aren’t all that different. To attract students, you have to drop your price. This leads to a spiral to the bottom.

Instead, universities could be offering The Ultimate Degree In This Obscure Subject. Who offers the ultimate Digital Storytelling degree? The Web Development degree?

The usual objection has to do with faculty. But since we’re teaching under a majority-adjunct faculty model already, is this really an objection?

Jen Kramer @jen4web