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Lawrence Bacow speaks on challenges facing higher education

Former MIT chancellor examines rising costs, digital learning in Charles L. Miller Lecture
Lawrence Bacow presented the Miller Lecture at the MIT Faculty Club on April 22.
Lawrence Bacow presented the Miller Lecture at the MIT Faculty Club on April 22.
Photo: Stefanie Koperniak/Engineering Systems Division

Lawrence S. Bacow presented the annual Charles L. Miller Lecture on April 22 in the MIT Faculty Club. The lecture series, co-sponsored by MIT Engineering Systems Division and MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is named for Charles L. Miller, who joined the Civil Engineering faculty in 1955, and served as head of the department from 1962-1969.

Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts University and former MIT chancellor, delivered a talk entitled, “The Research University in the Digital Age.” Bacow described universities as “complex systems” and “a whole series of joint products.” The biggest challenge facing higher education, he argued, “is not access, but how to bend the cost curve” — noting that tuition costs have gone up faster than health care costs over the past 25 years.

Bacow looked at why higher education costs keep going up and how this increase might affect institutions. “There is increased pressure to justify the value proposition for residential education,” he said.

With a number of universities now exploring MOOCs and other digital learning possibilities, there are increased opportunities for those seeking higher education worldwide. Bacow noted, however, that while there is a business model for higher education, MOOC providers still have not determined a consistent revenue source. He also said that some of the things that happen specifically in a residential higher education experience, including the face-to-face, in-person, social interaction of students and faculty, might be difficult to replicate or replace online.

“Lots of people are predicting the end of higher education as we know it,” Bacow said. “I actually happen to be skeptical.”

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