Expecting Too Much of Online Education

In an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune Michele Weldon wonders if high costs will lead to the extinction of on-campus learning. As she writes:

The living expenses of rent, food, utilities and transportation are choking many families. The College Board estimates that the average college student’s living expenses for 2011-12 will be $17,820 for nine months and $23,770 for a full year.

Tuitions are hefty at brick and mortar as well as online schools. Tuition overall increased an average 37 percent last year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Parents and their hardworking, hard-borrowing students saw tuition bills last year averaging nearly $13,000 for a public institution and $32,000 for a private school. Estimates for an online four-year degree can run $300 per credit, or $30,000 for a bachelor’s degree.

Well right, no surprise there. But Weldon thinks that all this expense may soon become too much for parents, though she is apparently willing to pay such costs to send her own children to school. Soon people will go to college online! As she writes:

I predict the mandatory back to campus/ back to debt move-in scenario will soon become extinct for all except the elite. The sight of parents and their progeny toting garbage bags and mattresses into old apartments every August and September may become as quaint a memory as panty raids and parietals. It will be more common for students to click on a course from their parents’ basement.

The thing is that the sort of students who go to college by physically moving into a campus dormitory with their parents’ help is already pretty rare, and always has been. The majority of college students (some 73 percent) are nontraditional; they’re older than 25, they have a family, they have jobs, and they don’t live on campus.

It’s true that online college, particularly the degrees offered cheaply by public universities, will make some sort of dent in the number of students attending community colleges. That’s because those students are often practical, working-class, and short on cash and time.

But online education will do nothing to the students attending real colleges and living in dorms. Those students already are the elite, whether they go to Princeton or Florida State.

The vast expense and wastefulness of that sort of degree, the time spent living with friends in decrepit, overpriced apartments, the evenings spent in the library rather than earning money at a job, those are the things that make a college degree so desirable and so valued. Online education will never cut into that; going to college was never a practical decision in the first place.

Daniel Luzer

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