Always providing high-quality food for thought, Steven Bell writes for  the Library Journal about the “higher education bubble”. The rising cost of tuition, the availability of open education resources, and the economic crisis are widening the divide between the actual cost of education and its perceived value. Though studies continue to show the value of a degree and its long-term impact on an individual’s net worth, these numbers have been falling as people begin to acquire more and more debt in order to pay for that degree.

Some may take the warning signs as a foreshadowing of events sure to come while others may brush them off as mere apocalyptic hysteria. I imagine many academics far somewhere in the middle: recognizing the fact that it’s coming but not making much effort to understand or prepare for what could dramatically change the landscape of higher ed.

Let’s not make the mistake that newspapers made.

Newspapers provide a useful model for thinking about a potential burst in the academic market. Before the networked, internet-based economy began to rise in the late 1990s, newspapers ruled the landscape of news media. Their business model was one of risk aggregation and hierarchical efficiency. Large numbers of journalists could be employed to produce a single, high-quality product that people could not get otherwise. The internet changed that landscape by providing an essentially no-risk, no-cost environment in which anyone could produce news and, through the currency of the link, could become a news provider. Combine that with the individual’s ability to filter (to essentially be their own editor-in-chief) and anyone could have their own, personalized New York Times for a much lower cost. Granted, it may not be the same level of quality, but at a certain point, people are willing to settle (cf. satisficing).

That’s a messy summary, but it quickly gets to my point: the system of delivery changed while the value of the product dropped just enough to where consumers defaulted to the cheaper option. Sure, there are choirs of  humanists, scientists, and public intellectuals who will sing the glories of academia all day long (just listen to any of the commencement speeches currently taking place across the country). But like newspapers, content matters little when you have a business model that no longer works.

What would happen to academic libraries if the higher education bubble burst? Is there anything we can do to prevent it? The newspapers tried and failed (are still failing). Instead, maybe we should ask, how can we begin making steps to transition to a new existence when that day comes?

We need to start continue doing more with less. The economic crisis of the last two years has forced us to cut budgets and staff. We need to reflect on what we learned during that process and take that with us as we move forward.

We need to get our users more involved. We won’t be able to carry the organization on our own. If value comes from sharing, collaboration, use, and links, then we need to build up our user base before we can take advantage of their trading power.

We have to market harder. People need to know our value if we expect them to carry us forward into the future. We should be seeking out new ways to extend our services, even if it falls outside the typical job description of academic librarians. We have resources. Let’s use them!

We need to open up our catalogs and make the data more accessible on the web. If users don’t find us in a Google Search, then we’re already one step behind everyone else. If we haven’t learned it by now, we have to come to where are users are at. There is a rule of thumb that I learned from a recent web design teacher: 30 seconds, 3 clicks. If users can’t get what they need in 30 seconds or in 3 clicks of the mouse, they will go elsewhere. (Of course, the 64 million dollar question is: how can we get them there in 1 click?)

…and related to that…

We need to enrich our digital materials (online exhibits, scanned books, the catalog). Metadata is king. Without a strong infrastructure, it will be increasingly more difficult for other services to integrate with ours. That’s one of the wonderful things about this new open and digital environment: if people like you, they will develop for you. iPhone users crack their devices not because they hate Apple (though I’m sure some do), but because they love Apple and want to make their devices more useful.

How can we get to the point where our users work for us?