How can people in online colleges get the “college experience”? That’s not generally a source for much concern (since most people in online colleges are taking classes that way because they have jobs and families) but Conor Friedersdorf over at The Atlantic wonders if this might be something that matters eventually. He seems to confuse actual college, however, with the mere elements of college. As he writes:

I can imagine an online education industry that looks a lot different than 18-year-olds streaming lectures in childhood bedrooms they seldom leave. In fact, I think selling “the college experience” to students taking their courses online is going to be a major growth industry over the next decade.

The economics of higher education certainly point toward a future where a lot of young people take advantage of distance learning to get a much cheaper education. But even if online learning becomes the norm, won’t the desires for both amenities and “the college experience” persist? I think so, and I can imagine variations ways those desires might be met.

He’s got several ideas for how this might happen. Here’s one:

Elite institutions selling their networks. The year is 2018. An 18-year-old kid is living in Santa Monica, California with his parents, but he’s enrolled in Yale’s distance learning program, admission to which requires a 4.0 GPA and scores in the 90th percentile on the SAT. Why is he paying more for Yale’s program when UC Berkeley extension is twenty percent cheaper? Partly for access to Yale West, a program that helps Southern California based Yale students to network with one another and Yale alumni. There’s the monthly cocktail hour at the Soho House in West Hollywood, the group surfing lessons offered each summer in Huntington Beach, the ongoing lecture series, and the promise of a Culver City based student recreation center and study hall, which will open in two years if all goes according to schedule. A similar program is planned for the Bay Area. They wouldn’t be the first to leverage a respected brand into a profitable events business.

Interesting, but this seems very misguided, a based on the idea that at some point affluent people are going to seek out exclusive online colleges. Why would they do this when if they can afford the real thing? Why would Yale want do this?

If higher education comes to look like this we’ve essentially given up on the idea of education and broadening and enriching. A life where going to Yale consists of online lectures students watch while living in their childhood bedrooms and “group surfing lessons offered each summer in Huntington Beach” is a pretty shallow version of college.

This might legitimately be a trend in American higher education but, if so, it’s something to actively resist. Everyone knows that part of the benefits of attending America’s elite institutions have to do with lavish amenities and “networking opportunities,” but such things are the byproducts of education, not education itself.

“Education,” William James wrote, “is the process by which we are able to distinguish what is first rate from what is not.” Sure networking opportunities and online lectures might be elements of college, but such things alone aren’t actually as good as real college. The interaction that students and scholars have with each other on campus, in libraries and in class, is part of what makes an elite education elite. One can’t break up a Yale (or Amherst or Berkeley or UW Madison) education and maintain its quality by reassembling it in Orange County using laptops and listservs.

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