Business Week has an article about potential ways to control college costs. The piece, by Michael Bassis, president of Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, explains that:

Are there instructional designs that have the capacity to lower costs and enhance the outcomes of the educational experience? Let’s return to the case of online learning. This design began as an inexpensive way to deliver the standard curriculum. While it did provide increased access to many students, it was widely regarded as inferior to traditional degrees delivered by faculty in the classroom. But online learning is proving to be a classic example of a disruptive technology.

“Disruptive technologies” refer to innovations that can make services simple and inexpensive. So online can improve schools because computer-based classes can make education delivery cheap and easy. This is a good theoretical point, and one we’ve seen before. The trouble is that Bassis also says that:

Traditional indicators of quality such as small classes taught by distinguished faculty, grand campuses with impressive libraries and laboratories, and bright, heavily recruited students are all costly. There is no way to break the link between cost and quality when quality is defined only by those things that require substantial resources.

But those things he listed are not inappropriate measures of quality. They are actually the things that make college good.

If academia made a serious effort to look at outcomes it might quickly discover that there’s a place for online and there’s a place where online does no good. If one truly wants to make greater strides to delivering cost-effective education the important point is not just looking at what the delivery method costs but what it delivers. “Does it work?” should be the primary question.

The problem with so much discussion of online content is that it treats college like merely a way to transmit knowledge to undergraduates, as if it’s an extension of high school.

Scholarship costs money. Universities exist to transmit knowledge not just in terms of teaching English to freshman but also in terms of looking at ancient text to discover new meaning. That’s okay. Knowing when something costs too much money is also important.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer