My graduating class of 1995 was one of the last to start college without the Internet. The first browser, Netscape Mosaic, came along in 1993, but there wasn’t yet much to browse. Writing papers required finding physical copies of books and journals in the library, as had been done for hundreds of years. Colleges held a monopoly on access to most academic publications, which helped them justify skyrocketing tuition. Professors were among the few who spent much of their adult lives in close proximity—both physically and intellectually—to these rare volumes. They were thought to be uniquely capable of navigating “the literature.” So colleges held a monopoly on access to both the books and the expert guides who knew the books, which further justified jacking up tuition.
Of course, much of this paradigm has been upended by the internet. Today, many of the core works in any field can be found online for free. And many college lectures are available online to anyone. Students can often get much better guidance on navigating the books from the myriad free online sources than from the one person who happens to be their professor. Thus, the monopolies that colleges once had on publications and expertise have largely crumbled.
And this begs the question of what remains in the aftermath. If the books and their guides are now at anyone’s fingertips online, what are students paying for when they go to college? There have been many answers to this question: classroom experience, campus experience, credentialing, technology, community, and diversity.