The world’s great universities are defined by walls. Physical walls demarcate the space of the campus and distinguish it from its surroundings, but less visible barriers also block entry to those outside. Tens of thousands of students apply to each of the most selective U.S. universities every year, yet only a small fraction are admitted through the gates. Since the formation of the modern university nearly two centuries ago, this fact has troubled many, prompting reform efforts on a number of fronts. Advocates have fought to eliminate impediments to higher education on the basis of class, gender, religion, and race— with impressive success. Yet significant barriers remain, especially to the top-tier universities.
The internet may prove to be the most powerful tool yet in the struggle for greater access to higher education. Digital technology and the networked environment offer transformative possibilities for how information is delivered, who can view it, and at what cost. Not only has the quantity of scholarly materials available online exploded over the past two decades, but hundreds of online programs and courses—even entire online-only universities—have offered new forms of access to education around the world. Technology has presented institutions of higher learning with the opportunity to revamp their practice. But across the higher-education spectrum, the rate of change has been decidedly uneven, ranging from enthusiastic overhauls to cautious, incremental adjustments. While the most elite universities have implemented a wealth of digital technologies to enhance, for example, administrative and