The September/October 2009 edition of the Washington Monthly highlighted StraighterLine, a company generating the type of disruptive innovation of higher education content delivery that Clayton Christensen heralds in Disrupting Class as soon transforming primary/secondary education.

The economies of scale afforded by Web delivery of content promises to commoditize the higher education market. The potential drop in cost is great news for those who cannot afford college in its current form. However, this new competition has the potential to tear apart the university system in the same way that the newspaper industry is being torn apart by free online Web content. This potential disruption has frightening implications for the continuing viability of the basic research and scholarship conducted by universities which underpins our long-term economic and cultural competitiveness, as well as for the ideal of a liberal arts education and the well-rounded individual such an education is intended to produce.

My optimistic view of this new delivery model is that it will expand the postsecondary education market more than it takes away from traditional liberal arts enrollment. Given that the majority of high-wage jobs require more than a high school education but only ~50% of college-age U.S. citizens actually attend college, there is plenty of room for postsecondary education market growth. If StraighterLine and its competitors can serve to upgrade the skills of those who would not have attended college anyway, there is still a possibility of preserving the liberal arts ideal for the top-performers destined for college (and even expanding its accessibility by stemming tuition growth through decreasing costs for delivery of basic content and tutoring), while significantly increasing opportunities for those not as academically suited for or otherwise in a position to attend a traditional 4-year program.

Segmenting the post-secondary market this way may also relieve the pressure some colleges are facing to make all coursework relevant to getting a job post-graduation. Having an undergraduate degree in a career-resistant major like philosophy and a certificate in Integrated Liberal Studies, I definitely view college as providing more than job training. I believe there is great merit in taking a bit more wandering path through the garden of human knowledge so that, nourished by the fruits of many academic disciplines, one may flourish more fully as a human than one otherwise might in only following a straight academic line and quickly devouring the life-sustaining but less nourishing narrowly career-focused content. While I believe that an enriched liberal arts education should be open to as many as possible, at the same time, I also recognize that the traditional college education is not for everyone. Perhaps StraighterLine and its competitors will help fill a widening gap between high school and a full liberal arts college experience.