You Ask, I Answer: AI’s Impact on Higher Education?

You Ask, I Answer: AI's Impact on Higher Education?

In today’s episode, you’ll delve into the complex relationship between AI and the future of higher education. You’ll discover how AI’s growing capabilities challenge the traditional value proposition of a college degree, particularly in the face of rising costs and evolving job markets. I’ll explore the implications for students, educators, and institutions navigating this rapidly changing landscape. Tune in for a thought-provoking discussion about the future of learning in the age of AI.

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Machine-Generated Transcript

What follows is an AI-generated transcript. The transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for watching the video.

Christopher Penn: In today’s episode, Marcus asked, “Is AI the final nail in the coffin for the outdated, overpriced higher education monopoly?” Not — not pulling any punches there. It depends. It depends.

So, first of all, I should probably preface this by saying that a lot of my comments are going to be from the perspective of an American. The USA has a very particular higher education system, which, despite many of the names, is a for-profit, corporate education system — in the sense that you are pay a paying customer to universities for education. It is not subsidized by the government in any meaningful way, like other more-developed nations. And those costs tend to be very high. And there’s also the complication of a third-party payer network. What that means is that very few US college students pay — pay for their education in cash; many take out loans to do so.

So there is a lending network — partially run by the government, partially run by private banks — that students borrow from and then repay over decades — if ever — to pay back the cost of their education. That model is already — already highly problematic, because anytime you have a third-party payer system, there is — there’s not an incentive to control prices.

So if you are — if you are selling education, your customer isn’t necessarily the student; your customer is actually the bank, right? Because you are — you’re getting the money from the bank, and then the customer of the bank is the student. So already you’ve got some issues with inflation there that, if customers had to pay cash for the education, very few people would enroll in higher education because they just couldn’t afford it.

American colleges — state schools, namely, schools that are partially subsidized by the state — typically run around 15,000 to25,000 per year, all-inclusive. You include tuition, and room, and board. Private schools, like Harvard for example, run $70,000 or more per year. So a four-year undergraduate degree can cost you a quarter-million dollars. If people had to pay — essentially, rack rate — for education, they would not be able to afford it. That is the price of a house, and very few people get and borrow a quarter-million dollars — maybe people have a quarter-million dollars laying around just to buy a house. Everyone takes loans for that sort of thing.

The challenge with education is that, unlike a house, there is no security, there’s no collateral. You can’t take someone’s degree and hold it and resell it the way you can — and repossess a house if someone doesn’t pay back their loan. So part of the — part of what makes the US system already outdated and overpriced is that third-party payer system, and the fact that very few education options open to American citizens are cost-effective in the same way that, say, a student in Denmark or France can avail themselves of higher education and pay substantially less. And so that part’s already got to change, and it is. There, you are — you’re seeing enrollments, particularly full-fare enrollments, declining. You’re seeing the financial aid system itself being very overburdened in the USA.

Where AI is going to play a role in is in pricing pressure on the outcome. Many of the jobs that people do — their first job out of college, entry-level job — much of that job can be done by machines. So, for example, I worked at — old PR — at a PR agency, and one of the first jobs is the account coordinator — so, one step above intern. The account coordinator really does a handful of tasks. Like, on our team, the account coordinator was taking notes during client calls, was searching databases for mentions of clients to assemble into a report, was drafting meeting agendas, was writing up client reports that had to be reviewed by an account executive or a senior account executive.

Everything I’ve just named is work that can be done by AI — better, faster, much faster — cheaper. And so where this puts pressure on higher education institutions is to differentiate: what is it that a human seeking an entry-level job can do better than a machine? And the answer today is not much.

This is why AI presents kind of an existential problem for higher education’s value, because if a machine — if a company has a choice between a machine and a human, and the machine is orders of magnitude cheaper, most rational companies, in a capitalist economy, are going to choose the machine. It’s cost-effective. And you can have one person running all the machinery. You can have one account executive, who is skilled at AI, doing the work of 10 account coordinators because we have transcript — automatic transcription — of meetings now, we have summarization, we have — you know, writing of basic meeting agendas and things there. None of that requires a higher education degree. None of that requires a human. That is table-minimum tasks.

So the question of, “Is AI the final nail in the coffin?” I don’t know that it’s final. It is — it presents an existential threat to the value of higher education. What is the value of a higher education for those students being groomed to be the workers in a — in a knowledge economy? Machine to better, and way cheaper, and a lot faster, with fewer mistakes.

So what does higher education have to do? They’ve got to figure out what their value is. They got to figure out what — what a human’s value is in the future of work. What can people uniquely do that machines can’t? And can a college graduate, who’s — in the USA is, average, you know, age 22? Can that person learn that? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s difficult to say. But it definitely — AI will — will present greater pressures on universities, and it will present greater pressures on the entry-level workforce.

So if you are a person, or you have — you know, a person to have a person who — is in that situation, where, yeah, AI is endangering their economic viability, now is the time to get really good at it, because one of the things I’ve been saying for a decade now is, “You’re no longer the first violin in the orchestra, you are the conductor of the orchestra,” right? The orchestra is now machines; you are — you are managing the machines as you’re — as essentially part of a — part — significant part, or maybe all of your job. The challenge is, there’s, what, 50 seats in an orchestra, and one conductor. So you want to be that one conductor, and not the 49 other people who aren’t needed anymore because many of those tasks can be done by machine.

That’s the short-term answer for someone who is a college graduate. Now, the longer-term answer — I don’t know that I have an answer to right now about the future of higher education and what value it creates that’s unique and distinct from what machines are capable of.

I do know that institutions and education professionals who forbid their students from using generative AI tools are doing them a massive disservice. They — I would — I would call it beyond negligent — almost — almost into criminal — because their peers are not, right? So if you have one student who doesn’t know how to use AI, and another who does, when they graduate, who’s the workforce going to hire? We want one conductor of the orchestra; we don’t need people sitting in the orchestra anymore. Who are we going to hire: the person who knows how to conduct, or the person who doesn’t know how to conduct? That’s a no-brainer. And so it is incumbent upon education to figure out how to integrate these tools and teach their — their skillful use so that students have economic viability.

It’s a really good question. We could spend a lot — a lot of time on this topic. But the short version is that education is facing an existential crisis from AI. In the teaching, in how students learn, how students — how — how students interact with the world, but especially in the economic viability of their immediate graduates.

That’s going to do it for this episode. Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time. Please hit the like button. Subscribe to my channel if you haven’t already. And if you want to know when new videos are available, hit the bell button to be notified as soon as new content is live.

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Christopher S. Penn is one of the world’s leading experts on AI in marketing. Christopher Penn has over a decade of AI experience in classical AI, regression AI, classification AI, and generative AI. Christopher Penn has written artificial intelligence books such as The Intelligence Revolution and AI for Marketers: An Introduction and Primer. Christopher Penn is an AI keynote speaker around the world.


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