College at any price? Online education: opportunities and roadblocks

College at any price? Online education: opportunities and roadblocks

It’s the best of times and the worst of times to be a student. On the one hand, technological advances have made online education more accessible and credible. Along with MOOCs, this represents a huge step forward in making higher education available and affordable to an exponentially wider student base than its traditional counterparts.

On the other hand, those traditional higher ed channels are still the prevailing pathways to a bachelor’s or advanced degrees, and, for the most part, they’re not cheap. A recent episode of NPR’s On Point, featuring Nobel prize-winning economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz, revealed that the average student who borrows money for college graduates with $26,000 of debt. And as a nation of new grads face a job market that’s not exactly welcoming them with open arms, paying off that IOU can be a life-long challenge.

A recent article published by the Washington, D.C.-based news outlet discusses the ways in which online education is changing the field of education in general, and the cost of education in particular.

Focusing on California’s San Jose State University (which has been at the center of a MOOC controversy lately), author Sophie Quinton points out the ways in which online classes don’t just make education more affordable for students, they also represent a viable—and appealingly cost-effective—model for state and/or federal support of educational programs.

“State governments see online programs as something of a safety valve, allowing them to serve more students without raising taxes,” said Michael McPherson, president of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, which finances education research.Higher_Ed_ROI

There’s more to it than that, of course; for online courses and degrees to play a valid role in the educational landscape, they had to reach a level of credibility and demonstrate consistent standards for quality. In recent years, many prominent online schools have accomplished this. But it might just take the fiscal element to effectively shift public perception away from traditional education institutions and approaches. After all, it’s hard to argue with a price tag that potentially drops from four or five figures (or more) down to three.

Professor Stiglitz contends that the current cumbersome financial burden contributes to economic inequality in America. And Quinton presents some sobering stats:

During the past decade, the price of an undergraduate education (tuition, room, and board) leaped by 31 percent at private schools and by 42 percent at public institutions, according to federal-government figures. Seventy percent more students took out loans, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found, borrowing an average of 70 percent more money. Even at public institutions, historically able to offer an affordable education, tuition has risen uncomfortably high as state and local funding has shrunk by 21 percent per pupil over the past 10 years.

So which is greater: the theoretical, philosophical burden of proof—of quality, of accountability, of merit—that online education still faces in some traditional academic contexts; or the practical, financial burden that students face in those same contexts. And as these ongoing changes in tradition and technology continue forward, we may see the latter win out over the former for simply pragmatic reasons.

Do you think that the tuition bill is at the heart of this showdown? Or do you see the future of education being shaped by other factors? Share your thoughts with us.


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  1. I can understand the resistance to online education from the people who attained their education from a traditional “on campus” method. I think online education can be just as effective for certain types of people who self starters. These people have natural curiousity to seek out information. The type of degree should be limited for hybrid or online degrees. A Business degree is something that would be acceptible but I would not want my nurse or doctor to have an online education.

  2. Gonna have to agree with Dan here. I understand why people resist online degrees, but as they are becoming more and more prevelant, I think they will become more and more acceptable.

  3. I fully agree with the comment of Dan. There will be 50% of the people who will have the capability of learning things by themselves only. Online education is not a bad thing, but for some of the people, it is a challenge.

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