The Online College Revolution

The great advantage of having an online column (instead of one that kills trees) is quick feedback. This affords me the chance to not just issue corrections when I’m wrong, but to do a second column on the same subject while it’s still fresh with you.

So it is with online college education. I expected to hear the kinds of views I got from Marc Goldberg of eVineyard and Jorge Alfaro of Ariba that college isn’t just about classes.

“All the online universities focus on trade school credentialism,” griped Goldberg. “College is a completely different animal. I still have friendships from my undergraduate experience 25 years ago, both the classmates and former professors. Can you imagine any informal social interaction derived from an online ‘education’?” Alvado was gentler, saying “there is something to be said for networking, and I don’t mean the computer kind.”

Even more interesting, and unexpected, was the number of readers who told me about online degree programs that do exist, from real schools.

Ronna Rickerd said Regis University in Colorado and St. Leo University in Florida, both over 100 years old, are among those colleges offering online degree programs. Someone who didn’t leave a name also claimed Vancouver University in Canada has “North America’s oldest external degrees” I report this but I didn’t check it out.

Two University of Illinois students, Chris Desai and Lisette Wells, pointed to their school as a leader in the field. Desai is getting an engineering degree, while Wells will graduate in library science. Desai added that the university charges the same tuition for online classes as it does for those taught in classrooms. Wells, like Desai, seemed to be a satisfied customer. “You’ve found your brand-name institute in U of I,” she wrote. (The Fighting Illini, by the way, fell in the second round of the men’s tournament, to Florida, the same round in which my Lady Owls went down, to North Carolina.)

While all this is gratifying (I’m going to have to pay for two kids’ college educations real soon), I must note that most of the current online offerings, like UC Berkeley’s project management degree, are graduate programs, not undergraduate. Kara Swanson of Micron’s Crucial Technology unit in Idaho, for instance, notes that she’s starting a University of Maryland degree in international management this summer, while her husband starts Stanford’s online MSEE program.

All this is great. It represents progress. But defenders of the status quo need to look hard at this figure $207,000. That’s the average cost of an undergraduate degree today taken at a regular four-year school. (Even that figure may not include the subsidy of an endowment or taxes.) That figure keeps going up, year after year. And when brand-name colleges like Illinois offer online degrees, they keep the online price at the offline level.

This can’t continue, and I predict it won’t. Maybe Americans can afford to mass-produce college graduates in this way. But there’s a whole world out there that can’t afford the capital costs we’ve sunk into our traditional campuses, a world of motivated learners (even undergraduates) who need not just the benefits of an online curriculum, but the price breaks it can provide as well.

The revolution, in other words, has only just begun.

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