Online Degree, Debt Free

By A. G. Moore 2/21/2013

Relative Cost of College Tuition 1978-2008

Chart by John Uebersax, on Wikipedia

On its February 19th editorial page, The New York Times took a strong stand against online college education. The following day, the Times ran a front page article which examined student debt. The Times explained in this article that students do not have good choices today: in most cases they either incur ruinous debt getting a college degree or forgo a degree and face an increased risk of being unemployed.

As I read the student debt article, I kept asking myself, can’t the Times put two ideas together? Can’t they see that inexpensive online education may be a third option for financially beleaguered students? I think the problem many people, including the Times’ editors, have with visualizing a successful online college model is that it’s a new idea. So far it’s been applied in rough-shod fashion across a wide spectrum of students; according to the Times, this casual application has not seen good results. But neither did the automobile or airplane see good results on their first runs.

Online education can be an excellent model for churning out mediocre BA degrees, the same quality most second-rate institutions churn out now for a lot more money. The Times editorial, in opposing online colleges, points to the high student drop-out rates in their courses. The Times states that the reason for the attrition is “well-known”: Students are unprepared for college-level academic work and they are not conditioned to operate independently, without prompting and feedback from a physically present teacher.

As far as academic preparation is concerned, this is a problem that haunts both brick and mortar and online education models. But the second point the Times makes, that students are unprepared to work independently, is easily remedied. Today’s high schools spend a lot of time and money readying students for brick and mortar colleges. With very little tweaking, high schools can also ready students for an online model.

In a student’s junior year–which is when college planning gets concrete–a course should be offered in independent learning. The title of this course should enticingly be something like: Going to College for Little or no Money (yes, I do know a single mother who completed the last two years of her B.A. online, for free, after the TAP allowance kicked in). The structure of the junior year course would mirror that of an online college course–except that, from time to time (maybe once every two weeks), an actual physical teacher would show up to check on progress. A resource center (online) would be available for anyone who has technical trouble.

In the senior year, a more advanced version of this course would be offered. In the advanced course, all work would be completed independently, except for the online resource. Of course, students could always seek out a teacher on their own and ask questions.

Mandated for every college aspirant, whether planning to go to a brick and mortar or online school, would be a course which forces students to examine the cost/benefit ratio of different college models–not only brick and mortar vs. online, but also Ivy League and private vs. public. Included in this course would be a consideration of commuting and residence costs. The student would have to do a dollars and cents analysis of what the residential experience costs, especially if it is a borrowed cost, and what the benefit derived from that cost might be.

There is nothing untoward about mandating cost analysis of educational options for college-bound students. Students are instructed in all kinds of things: They are taught about sex and nutrition; they must take Driver’s Education before they can get behind the wheel of a car; they learn about trading on the stock market in a basic economics course. And yet, when it comes to one of the biggest decisions in their life–buying a college education–they are taught nothing. They are defenseless.

Attending college on a brick and mortar campus can be lovely. There is a suspension of reality that prevails through the college years. But at what cost? In the end, reality bites. Many graduates are struck by the realization that the loveliness of college was an expensive illusion and they will spend a life trying to pay for an unaffordable mistake.

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