Is higher education doomed?

July 17, 2012: 8:49 PM ET

College is still (mostly) worthwhile -- but our concept of higher education needs to change.

By Ryan Bradley, senior editor

FORTUNE -- A dire statistic, followed by a troubling fact: The cost of education has increased 550% since 1985; and the sector has, in the words of Coursera founder Daphne Koller, "not benefited at all from leveraging technology to reduce cost." Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company. It puts college courses online, for free. And, in just a year since its creation, it has registered 680,000 students in 43 courses offered by Princeton, Stanford, Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania. Today, the start-up announced another dozen universities are joining, which Koller says will add about 20 more courses by the fall.

So, can education be fixed? Or, following the example of Peter Thiel -- whose "20 Under 20" fellowship pays young entrepreneurs to eschew higher education -- is the system so broken it needs to be swept aside? Or is there, through Coursera and others like it, a new model emerging?

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Thiel's pointed remarks on the dire state of education hung in the thin Aspen air like a sword of Damocles, prompting Washington Post chairman Don Graham to ask the education panel at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference if anyone agreed with the entrepreneur. "As somebody who watches over the public schools at a big city, I think [Thiel's message] is a nightmare. Am I wrong?"

"No," was the panelists collective reply -- with one key exception. Matt MacInnis, the founder and CEO of Inkling, which makes interactive books for iPads, pointedly asked, "Well, which college are you attending?" Adding: "You can't make a blanket statement that if you complete college, the return on investment is positive."

And there's the rub. As Koller pointed out, in higher education, "There aren't well defined metrics regarding ROI." Koller's vision, and Coursera's purpose, is to deliver education at scale. "I think that in 10 years you're going to see a much, much larger fraction of education being offered in this way," she said. And, with an influx of new courses and an expected user base of more than a million by year's end, she may be right.

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