An increased range of online courses could help to ease the financial pressure on students and universities.
through Sarah Kolin
| 8/21/20 2:00 am
While last spring semester was riddled with technical difficulties and left a lot to be desired, the transition to online learning could have been far worse. With more time to organize class schedules, tech classrooms, and train professors, online courses and degrees could become a potential solution to America’s college tuition crisis. By forcing an abrupt shift to distance learning, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the development of a market for quality online degrees. As families suffer from rising tuition fees and post-pandemic colleges struggle to maintain their long-term financial viability, increasing online degree programs present an economic opportunity for both sides of the equation.
Over the past 40 years, tuition has increased by over 213 percent in public schools and 129 percent in private schools, adjusted for inflation. This rate is increasing about eight times faster than median income growth over the same period and is a result of more students applying for a limited number of degrees. That upward trend is expected to continue for decades to come, and with record unemployment and an economy still suffering the effects of the pandemic, more families than ever will be unable to pay the check for a college education.
Not only students have financial problems. Dartmouth expects a $100 million loss by next July from the cancellation of face-to-face classes and activities, and other universities are in the same boat. Since Dartmouth has already accessed Cutting some of his varsity sports teams, it seems that the administration is desperately trying to minimize losses. As such, Dartmouth should consider whether it could benefit from online degrees.
Dartmouth has an absurdly low acceptance rate for receiving the benefits of a small college, such as B. a small student-to-faculty ratio and a tight campus community, as well as the prestige of an Ivy League degree. This means that each year there are many qualified applicants that the college cannot accept. The administration made this clear in its decision to scrap five varsity sports teams to allow Dartmouth to accept more applicants outside of athletic recruitment. But what if that changes?
Let’s say Dartmouth ran admissions as usual, but then accepted the next 1,000 most eligible applicants to get online degrees for reduced tuition. This would allow greater access to Ivy League education, particularly for students who cannot afford private universities, even with generous financial aid packages. It also presents an economic opportunity for Dartmouth as the college could still charge more than half the full tuition for an online degree. With the financial pressures on colleges and families in the wake of the pandemic, an online degree program could benefit both sides.
Students have already started reaping the financial benefits of online school. Before the pandemic, a third of college students were enrolled in online degree programs, while another third took at least one online course in their four years. This past spring and summer there have already been a number of Dartmouth students who have chosen to transfer to more affordable institutions such as community colleges. If this trend continues, the failure to offer online options could actually have a negative impact on Dartmouth’s revenue.
Jumping into the world of online education obviously comes with a lot of risks. First off, offering an online school could take away from the prestige of a Dartmouth degree. Nonetheless, the online learners would participate in the highly competitive admissions process along with everyone else. If Dartmouth accepted around 500 to 1000 online students per year, the overall acceptance rate would still be around 10 percent. Also, online degrees could be given a different title than personal experience, leaving it up to graduate schools and employers to decide the value of the online experience at Dartmouth (similar to weighing the value of a two-year vs. a four-year bachelor’s degree -Experience).
The addition of online learning on top of face-to-face classes also raises questions about what that transition would look like for professors. They would probably need to be paid more for their overtime work, but taped lectures and online curriculum are easily reused, so their ongoing workload would not increase significantly.
It is also worth considering whether an online degree can even be considered a true Dartmouth experience. While outings, big weekend traditions and after-school groups help build the community and friendships that are hallmarks of our time in Dartmouth, they are not essential to the academic experience. An online degree has less overall value but still incorporates Dartmouth’s intellectual community, such as the college’s professors, classes and academic resources, at a lower cost. There are some students who may even prefer an online degree to an on-campus experience after considering academic interests, social comfort, and financial constraints. For example, online degree programs could make it easier for students to simultaneously have jobs to pay off student loan debt — students would have more free time away from extracurricular and other components of campus life, and would have a greater variety of jobs to choose from.
The success of MIT’s open courseware program also bodes well for the future of prestigious universities that offer online courses or degrees. Since 2002, nearly every MIT course has been placed online for public viewing (without offering a degree). This has not tarnished MIT’s reputation, nor has it resulted in a drop in enrollment on campus.
Ultimately, online degrees may not be on the cards for Dartmouth and its peer institutions. Such a program could create dangerous divisions along socioeconomic lines and weaken the broader Dartmouth community by taking away some common aspects of the Dartmouth campus experience. Nonetheless, the future of college in America lies in online degrees. As robots and automation are expected to displace people from manual jobs in the coming decades, the value of a college degree will be greater than ever. More people will want to go to college, and demand will drive tuition even higher. If we continue on our current path, student loan debt will exceed $3 trillion in the next ten years. This is clearly problematic for both borrowers and lenders, but it will also slow the economy by inhibiting future sales of homes, cars and other luxury goods. Given the broader implications of these trends in the American higher education system, online degrees appear to be a viable way to make education more accessible without detracting from the current in-person college experience.