We met with Stuart Rojstaczer to discuss the future of higher education, the advantages and disadvantages of online education, school endowment, and more. Enjoy!
Professor Stuart Rojstaczer discusses the advantages and disadvantages of online education including flexibility, affordability, and self-responsibility. Rojstaczer believes there has been a shift from the golden age of education to the current climate, warning that students who are less self-motivated may be less likely to thrive as online students. The new educational landscape really requires a level of self-assessment. For highly motivated students, online education may present an opportunity for a lower-cost education. Dr. Rojstaczer comments that some of the top universities are the most equipped to develop online degrees. He also mentions that community college is an excellent and inexpensive alternative for students who want more of a support system throughout school.
Rojstaczer also mentions that the schools that do not have a large endowment or are among the top 100 schools, may have a hard road ahead as students search for cheaper alternatives. Follow along as Dr. Rojstaczer, former Duke University geophysics professor and American author, talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
See interviews with other college admissions experts.
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko, and I’m here with a good guy, who I’ve been reading his book and I feel like I’ve really gotten to know him, Professor Stuart Rojstaczer. And we’re not gonna talk about his book on this interview, we’re gonna talk about some of his ideas about education, and in particular, this new thing called online education. So, Professor Rojstaczer, tell us what you think about this and how it plays into the education of the masses in the United States.
Stuart Rojstaczer: Well, it’s less expensive, so the less expensive is good, and it allows for more flexibility. So for people who are actively working, raising their kids, we live in a very... The lifestyle has changed where we’re no longer doing one thing at a time, everyone is multi-processing, multitasking, it allows for people to squirrel away small amounts of time to study in a convenient place, their home, so there are lots of big advantages, expense and flexibility, that mean that it’s going to always be a force in education, in particular higher education from here on in.
Jed: And so, as you wrote about, the higher education experienced an Golden Age, and now we’re sort of in this stationary phase, if you think about it as bacterial growth, sort of we’re just kind of chugging along now. How does online education play into that end of the Golden Age and the tightening of balance and all that stuff?
Stuart Rojstaczer: So it offers an opportunity for education, either for intellectual achievement or for career advancement for a group of people that have the initiative to participate in an online way. I would say that not everybody is able to do that, not everyone can find... They just don’t have the mindset and the ability to be self-starters to go online, let’s say an hour a day, or maybe even an hour every other day, and then spend an hour every other day studying without some sort of physical presence. But for a select group of people who have that initiative, it provides them with a path that they may not have otherwise, because it is inexpensive relative to physically being in a place which has all that bricks and mortar, and is inefficient inherently from an economic standpoint, and it flies in the flexibility where they don’t have to travel somewhere, so it saves their money, and it can save them time, for a select group of people, and not everyone is able to do this effectively, we have to be honest. And people have to do self-assessment, "Am I the kind of person who can do this on my own without knowing that I’m gonna embarrass someone if I don’t?"
So one aspect of physically being at a place is that you get to know people, and the cost is high, so the ante into the system is high, and the potential for embarrassment is high. You don’t wanna disappoint people, you’re sitting in a dorm, you want... You don’t wanna disappoint your fellow dorm mates by failing or doing poorly, you don’t wanna disappoint the professor or the instructor, you have some sort of relationship where you go, "Oh, that person is there, I don’t wanna disappoint them." You don’t have that ante, that high ante in online education, so only a select group is gonna have that ability to not worry about embarrassment, and just be... Have the initiative to say, "I’m gonna do this on my own." And that, for them, it can be highly valuable. It’s very valuable.
Jed: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. On the flip side, for higher education, as it has to sort of deal with the fact that, "Hey, we’re not getting government grants as much anymore, and alumni donors have carried us a little bit further than we might have gone, but everything’s gotta end at some point." Is online education a way to shore up some of the weaknesses that you pointed out in your book, or is there some lesson that we can learn about online education?
Stuart Rojstaczer: I think it can be a supplement, and... For example, for the self-starter, for the highly motivated, I know that just from personal experience, a good friend of mine’s daughter is going to a law school, a highly regarded law school, and during this pandemic time has had to do all her work online, just about for most of her three... Last two years. And these are highly motivated people with undergraduate degrees that are off the charts in terms of their GPA and their recommendations, and have high LSATs. Can they do this? You bet, alright? You bet. So it provides an avenue during this time of pandemic for a top notch law school to still function pretty well. And so, has she suffered because of this? A bit, because of the social aspect, and getting to know people, and getting to know context, but far less than I would have imagined, far less of it than I would have imagined.
And because it’s been the first time that these schools have done this, it’s been an expensive proposition, so you can say that, "Okay, they still charge an arm and a leg, but maybe they had to to make this transition." But in the future, it may be that those top notch schools will be able to do an online format at a lower cost. It may be for these highly motivated, highly talented people who are going to law school, who are going to MBA programs, who are maybe even going to medical school, which is outrageously expensive because states have withdrawn support and aren’t subsidizing it the way they once did. So for these top notch students, it may well be a way of providing a lower cost education, which will be beneficial to them, right? Beneficial to them. Yeah.
Jed: Yeah, that makes sense. So as we close out this interview, you would say that maybe even the top notch schools can lower their, you know, the costs that they have to spend, the billings that they have to keep up, this and that, while maybe even increasing their enrollment? I mean, people have been talking about how Stanford, Harvard, these places should clone themselves because they sort of have a de facto monopoly on the top schools in the nation. So how do you see online playing into that whole discussion?
Stuart Rojstaczer: Yeah, so I would say that those schools are the ones that are best equipped to handle online education, but they already... Because they already tend to get highly motivated students, and I would be worried about online education for the less self-motivated, for the less talented. And I would say that for those students who are not used to having that sort of initiative that the community college system which is still inexpensive is the way to go for those first two years, and that though there are many students that still need that hands-on care, still need to be face-to-face with people, and I’m not trying to deride them, okay? This is just an emotional kind of thing that some people just don’t have that ability. And I think the community college system, which is still inexpensive across the nation, and is highly unappreciated for reasons that I do not understand, I do not understand, it provides a tremendous value to this country, should be the way that it’s done and less in an online way, particularly for people who are just starting out an education, who’s... They’re the first generation to go to school, so they don’t have their parents as sort of guides.
It’s a cost efficient way, probably better for them than online education. So if I had to think about where to put eggs in a basket, I would say for people who are just starting out in this education system, that have no history in their families of starting out, and wanna save money, then the community college system, getting your first two years done in a community college, then going to four-year school, after that, save a lot of money, learn how the system works, is the best way. For the highly motivated, then you can start looking at these top notch schools, and saying, "Why don’t you do more online education? Because you can, you don’t have to increase your bricks and mortar, which are expensive, you don’t have to increase your physical plan." A lot of these schools are located in regions where they can’t expand anymore. I don’t know about Wake, how big can Wake get?
Jed: Wake could get a lot bigger, but I’m thinking of the places where my kids are, and yes, it would be hard for them to make more space.
Stuart Rojstaczer: Right, so it would seem to be you could rotate people in and out to keep the same physical plant, rotate people, things in and out, not... Don’t hire me to do this, by the way, it’s beyond my expertise, but rotate people in and out so that the physical plant doesn’t have to be bigger. People can spend some time getting to know people at college, and then a lot of time outside, and you could probably dramatically increase the enrollment at all of these top 100 schools that all these students seem to funnel into, they only wanna go to those top 100. It would alleviate the problem of too many applications for too few spaces, which right now has gotten to levels that are not good, it creates this tension that people shouldn’t feel. So that’s how I view...
Jed: Yeah, that makes sense.
Stuart Rojstaczer: Higher Ed... Yeah.
Jed: That makes a lot of sense.
Stuart Rojstaczer: Yeah, I view online.
Jed: And for the schools that are not currently in the top 100, that are then going to lose students to the top 100 if they expand the way you were talking about, and lose students to the community college system if they follow your advice and go with a cheaper option their first two years, they’re obviously not gonna be able to survive, especially now that the golden age is over. So would you just recommend that they sort of take their name and their alumni and sort of just pull together into different groups, or... What would you say to the people at those less than top 100 schools? They’re... They’ve had a good thing?
Stuart Rojstaczer: If the school does not have a large endowment and is somehow viewed as out of this top 100 or top 200, they’re gonna have a hard road ahead, and I... [laughter] I don’t predict a good future for many of these small colleges that played a significant role in education in the United States for a couple hundred years, and nothing lasts forever. And so, for those schools, I don’t see them having much of a future. And they can consolidate. For example, there’s one school in the Northeast that just consolidated with an Oakland small school, so they’re gonna be bi-coastal, and maybe that makes it more attractive, but in the long term, unless some school has a large endowment and can subsidize their tuition, they become less and less attractive because everyone wants to go to these... Not everyone, but most people seem to wanna go to some school that has a visibility in a ranking system, rightly or wrongly. Now, I could say that those small schools can provide an excellent education, and they do, but unfortunately people aren’t listening to me on that manner, so... I’m just one...
Jed: [chuckle] So you don’t bring good things for them.
Stuart Rojstaczer: I’m just one guy. And I noticed that my ideas don’t necessarily carry the day, right?
Jed: JM: Well, I have...
Stuart Rojstaczer: I don’t understand it, I don’t understand that my...
Jed: I have enjoyed...
Stuart Rojstaczer: Ideas don’t carry the day, okay? [laughter]
Jed: I’ve enjoyed listening to your ideas. I think you were maybe 10 years ahead of yourself, ahead of the game, and it was fun to read even 20 years later, 25 years later, what you had written in the late 1990s, because I think it is going on still today. And one analogy you made is that people have stayed at the craps table too long, they were doing great, but they should’ve quit while they were ahead. How does that analogy play into these small schools that aren’t in the top 100, top 200? What could they have done differently? The writing might have been on the wall 25 years ago, but what could they have done differently?
Stuart Rojstaczer: They should have chased after money big time to get big endowments, because if you have a big endowment, first of all, you have people with a vested interest, family with a vested interest, important families with a vested interest in keeping you going. Second of all, you can use that endowment, not that everyone does this, to dramatically decrease their tuition, to create value, you can say, "Okay, you could go to school X, but you can go to my school. Same education, and pay $10,000 less per year." So you could work on the idea that you are a value school, but you can’t be a value school if you don’t have the endowment to cushion you. So what they should have done, and I was mumbling to myself as I watched these schools struggle along, is try to find somebody to give them $100 million in all the clip. And even though that’s a difficult task, that’s how you survive in this game, is by the size of your endowment. If you look at a Liberty University, not that I wanna tout it, as a great university, but it now has an over a one billion dollar endowment, and I think it’s $1.7 billion last that I checked. They were on the rocks as a school. They were financially in precarious situation, somebody went after money, chased after it, got it.
Now, you can imagine Liberty, even though it’s not... I don’t think it’s a top 100 school, it has a niche, right? Religious education, and highly endowed, it can probably keep its tuition relatively low because of its endowment. And it can keep going for a long time. So endowment would have been the key for these schools. So if they’re sitting on $56 million or $200 million endowments, the hand writing is on the wall. And maybe they can find somebody in the next five, 10 years to keep them afloat, then that may be possible, but I think a lot of them are gonna be gone in another 20-30 years, and they will have represented a different era in higher education, and they will have done an outstanding job, but their time is coming on. Not every university, or like some of the heralded universities in Europe, they don’t exist for 700, 800 years, you know? Not every... In the United States, we’re not gonna have too many Utrechts, okay? Yeah, I don’t know when Utrecht was founded, but a long time ago. Or Bologna, you know, was founded a long time ago.
Jed: Yeah, right. A long time ago.
Stuart Rojstaczer: Yeah, right. We’re not gonna have...
Jed: And that’s... That’s okay. I mean, it’s okay to...
Stuart Rojstaczer: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, personally. Every dog has its day.
Jed: [laughter] Alright. Well, on that note, let us thank you again for your...
Stuart Rojstaczer: Thank you.
Jed: Wonderful time, Stuart. It was great.
See our series of interviews with top experts and thought leaders in every field.
Or get valuable study tips, advice on adjusting to campus life, and much more at our student resource homepage.