A recent article in The Big Money (from Slate) rehashes a prediction that many have been making over the past decade.
The growth of online universities, offering courses that can be taken where and when it is convenient, leading toward accredited degrees, at a fraction of the price for the same degree at a conventional university, will soon lead to the disappearance of the traditional college experience. Universities, with their campuses, highly paid deadwood, er, professors, dormitories, schedules, classrooms, fraternities, sororities, partying and football teams, may soon become a relic of a time past.
Incoherent Ponderer (IP) expresses his healthy skepticism toward such prediction of imminent doom for all of us, arguing (quite sensibly) that online courses are really no replacement for face-to-face education. Moreover, how could anyone sensibly reduce the college experience to classroom instruction, when there are so many other valuable aspects to it, first and foremost the interaction with other students ?
I am not as optimistic as IP or others, though. I do see a problem, and I think that IP’s argument is based on a fundamentally flawed premise, namely that students go to college to get an education, when the vast majority, in my view, go to college to get a degree. There is a profound difference.
America is a very different place from the Italy where I grew up, three decades ago. Only about a quarter of all eligible youngsters would take the college route, and even fewer completed a college education. The vast majority opted to go to work, either right at the end of junior high school (i.e., at the age of fourteen in those days), or after completing a technical high school degree, at the end of which they could work as accountants, machine shop workers, electricians, secretaries, etc — they would learn a trade, in essence.
In America, there appears to be no choice but to go to college. I do not know whether this is the result of effective marketing and lobbying on the part of universities, but a college education is widely regarded as indispensable, within most professions. So ingrained is this notion, so many employers and managers are wedded to this belief, that many experienced, mature workers in their thirties and forties, with decades of experience on the job, find themselves compelled to return to college, often sustaining a significant financial and personal effort, in order to get past this career roadblock.
Let us be clear on one thing: there is no question that a college education, the one for which students spend four years at a university campus, makes one a better person, citizen, and in general a more effective professional as well, in the long run. A completely different issue is whether that education has a direct, measurable effect on the job performance of an entry-level worker, much less of one who has been on the job for years. Is a college education really the best way to become a computer programmer, or interior designer ? And what about all those trades for which there is likely going to be an increasing demand in the decades to come — plumber, construction worker, tailor, carver, electrician, landscaper, cook… These are all reasonably to fairly high-paying jobs, and hardly any of them requires that one go to college.
Indeed, this very point was made by economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, in a memorable editorial written for the New York Times over a decade ago, as the millennium was coming to a close. Krugman opined that, much like in Andersen‘s Emperor’s new clothes tale, at some point someone would say “Hey, wait a minute — what do I need this for ?”, and suddenly this collective fixation would end . That will be the day many universities, traditional or online close their doors.
For the time being, however, a college degree is widely regarded as a conditio sine qua non in order to get a job, much less move up the professional ladder.
Given the above, it is not surprising that a (significant) fraction of these students see college not as a place to obtain an education, to enrich themselves intellectually, but rather as a diploma mill, where to acquire some formal credentials, that society has come to regard as necessary. It is not surprising that many of them end up displaying little or no interest for their courses, skipping lectures or falling asleep during lecture (or eating, playing with their cell phones, reading the newspaper…), and generally acting as if learning were really not the point of the entire exercise .
It is also not surprising that many of them may find online education a better “bang for the buck”, especially if, with time, human resources offices should pay less and less attention to where the degree was obtained, focusing only on whether the applicant has some college degree.
So, until society starts interrogating itself on the purpose and role of college education, re-assessing it and perhaps coming to the conclusion that much smaller a fraction of its population should be college bound, I expect online universities to make an increasingly significant dent in the “customer base” of institutions of higher learning.
 On numerous occasions I have had students take issue with the content of courses I was teaching, arguing (sometimes vehemently) that specific topics were “not needed”, as they would “never have any use for them on the job”. A wannabe Electrical Engineering major once told me that he did not see why magnetism would be included in the syllabus of the introductory physics sequence, since, as an Electrical Engineer, he was only interested in “the electricity part, not the magnetism one”.