College Is Going Online, Whether We Like It Or Not

Skittish college professors won't stop the digital disruption of higher education.


The United States has a problem: rapidly rising student debt. It also has a solution: online education. The primary reason for spiraling student debt is the soaring costs of a college education at a physical college. Online education strips away all of those expenses except for the cost of the professor's time and experience. It sounds perfect, an alignment of technology, social need and limited resources. So why do so many people believe that it is a deeply flawed solution?

Because it means massive swaths of higher education is about to change. Technology has disrupted many industries; now it's about to do the same to higher ed.

But it is the students who need aid, and not the financial kind. They have too much of that as it is. The amount of student debt is large and getting larger. It will top $1.1 trillion this year; two-thirds of college students will graduate with debt. The average debt burden is $27,000, though that is skewed higher by a small percentage who owe a lot more. Forty percent of students owe less than $10,000. The amount of student debt has doubled since 2007, tripled since 2004, and many economists believe that the effect on the overall economy is negative.

While college graduates undoubtedly land in higher-paid jobs (earning almost twice those with only high school degrees), that may be offset by the burden of interest payments on student loans. Says Diane Swonk of Mesirow Financial: "Student debt has a dramatic impact on the ability to buy a house, and to buy the dishwashers and the lawnmowers and all the other purchases that stem from that ... It has a ripple effect throughout the economy."

As for the students, the price of the debt is often not worth the benefits. According to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 17 percent of students are in default, compared with 10 percent in 2004. And a large portion of those defaulting are over 30 years old, which means that the problems with student debt don't disappear with age.

Some debt is clearly manageable, rational and reasonable. Taking on a modest amount of debt for a degree that dramatically enhances your earnings power makes eminent sense. Yes, interest rates on federal student loans are too high relative to mortgage and market rates, and they are set to go higher this year, possibly to nearly 7 percent. But the problem with student debt is not that it has gotten so large so fast; it's the extent to which a college degree has become so expensive for so many who cannot afford it, yet leaves so many with a credential that is excessively costly relative to the skills it offers.

Colleges, including commuter community colleges, cost money to run and build, and they cost ever more as even third- and fourth-tier institutions try to entice students. Most students earn a degree because the credential is required for almost all higher-paying jobs. If the cost is between $25,000 and $75,000, and more than $200,000 at elite schools, then that is the price that must be born.

But is it? That is where the burgeoning world of massively online education presents such an opportunity. Institutions like the University of Phoenix have been offering online courses since the 1990s, but this new wave is larger in scale and now includes traditional universities. Online courses cost a fraction of a brick-and-mortar education. New companies such as Udacity and Coursera have been experimenting with new models, ranging from per fee, limited-enrollment classes with select professors to the so-called MOOCs ("massive, open, online classes") that attract tens of thousands of students per class. Coursera, barely a year old, already has 3.5 million registered users. Students anywhere in the country and indeed the world can sign up, take a course with skilled professors, meet with other students in their area for study groups and learn the material. Even more crucial, they assemble a menu of courses that combine pure learning and more-tailored vocational studies based on skills needed for particular jobs. And all for a fraction of the costs.

The problem is that many in the business of higher education hate the idea. It's disruptive to the traditional model and profoundly threatening to the current economics of the academic industry. The elite schools have embraced the online world because it allows them to use the power of their brand to extend everywhere. But many community colleges find the prospect more challenging, as it could well undermine their mission and the need for them. One critic quoted in a recent New Yorker described what might happen:

Imagine you're at South Dakota State and they're cash-strapped, and they say, 'Oh! There are these Harvard courses. We'll hire an adjunct for three thousand dollars a semester, and we'll have the students watch this TV show.' Their faculty is going to dwindle very quickly. Eventually, that dwindling is going to make it to larger and less poverty-stricken universities and colleges.

Unquestionably, the next wave of online education will disrupt. It will threaten faculty and colleges, but it will empower students. Yes, we are a few years away from online courses providing degrees and credentials that will be seen by the marketplace as adequate. For now, taking courses online may enrich your life, but it will not provide the entrée into jobs requiring a degree, whether associate's or bachelor's. Many fields of graduate study will be untouched, but many others - law, accounting and others - are ripe for online credentializing.

Having spent almost a decade as a graduate student and professor, I was always struck by how resistant to change and questioning academic cabals could be. The growth of online education is yet another example. Many are embracing it, and many are resisting it because it represents change to a world that often moves at the pace of medieval guilds.

The beneficiaries, however, are students, which really means all of us. The costs of obtaining needed credentials will plummet, and the ability to create more tailored, vocational programs aligned with the skills employers need will increase exponentially. That will likely lead to some shrinkage in the number of physical institutions offering degrees, but an increase in the number of people obtaining them. It will also mean that those taking on debt - especially at elite schools - will be those most likely to be able to bear those debts, while those who need more specific and vocational education for decently paid but not high-paying jobs will not be saddled with loans out of proportion to their earning potential.

This online educational revolution is the next wave, and it is still very early. Rarely has a societal problem been presented with such an ideal solution. We should embrace it passionately, because it's happening whether we do or not.

"The Edgy Optimist" column is initially published at, an Atlantic partner site.