High school seniors have a lot to think about in the weeks ahead. Chief among their decisions will be where to apply for college, and many will be enticed by President Obama’s call for making the first two years of community college “free” to qualifying students. There’s no doubt higher education leads to better jobs, higher salaries and more satisfied employees. And the idea of free community college is certainly popular. Obama’s fellow Democrats Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, all of whom are hoping to succeed him as president, have picked up and expanded his proposal. The question is, can our nation afford these ambitious proposals?
Back in November, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported total student-loan debt stood at $1.13 trillion, a $100 billion increase from a year earlier and nearly quintuple what it was in 2004. At about the same time, the Institute for College Access and Success estimated that 69 percent of 2014 college seniors graduated with outstanding student-loan debt — on average, $28,400.
Many of today’s students face a genuine dilemma: skip college and have trouble starting a financially rewarding career, or attend and then graduate with crippling debt. But there’s a third option: online education. According to a Babson Survey Research Group report, the percentage of higher-ed students taking at least one online course is now at an all-time high of 33.5 percent — fully one of every three collegians.
Powered by new technologies that harness the tremendous potential in digital data, online education has the prospect of accomplishing what America’s College Promise never could; namely, providing affordable, quality education that meets the needs of today’s student and tomorrow’s employee or entrepreneur.
Granted, online universities don’t hold the same cachet as their campus-based counterparts, and perhaps for good reason. The idea that a student can get a high-quality education from a computer screen has been the chief obstacle hindering broader acceptance of online universities. Another argument is that beyond the lectures and exams, the college “experience” — living away from home, usually for the first time — is invaluable.
Let’s tackle the education-quality argument first. The appeal of online universities has always been their competitive price. For example, Western Governors University, an online university based in Salt Lake City, charges about $6,000 a year for tuition — one-third less than the average tuition cost of a four-year public school for in-state students. And WGU’s tuition has held steady since 2008. But you get what you pay for, so WGU must be offering an inferior product than the brick-and-mortar schools, right?
Not quite. In 2014, U.S. News and World Report ranked WGU first against all other schools — online and traditional — for its teacher-preparation program, beating out schools such as the College of William & Mary (fourth, tuition: $21,000 out-of-state), Furman University (fifth, tuition: $44,000 out-of-state) and the University of California at Irvine (eighth, tuition: $37,000 out-of-state). If a student has dreams of becoming a teacher, WGU is not only one of the least-expensive options, it’s also one of the best.
The rise of digital communication tools means that students no longer need to physically be in classrooms to reap the benefits of a top-notch education.Lectures can be downloaded and watched later, and professors offer one-on-one sessions with students via video chat. Online universities are harnessing digital technology to become better, more intimate, and more useful for students.
As for replicating the college experience, online universities can’t do that — at least not yet. But there’s evidence that the desire to spend several years at a single institution, devoting yourself to learning — and the social life that comes with it — is falling out of favor. Perhaps that helps explain the findings from the Babson survey that more students are taking at least one course online.
Today’s students find themselves at the forefront of a digital transformation. Just about everything can be done online these days, from work to shopping to watching movies. The urgency to “be somewhere” to accomplish a task has given way to the convenience of being anywhere.
That is our digital destiny. So, why shouldn’t this hold true for higher education? The convenience of online courses means that a student can live anywhere in the world (including with their parents) to learn and pursue new interests. Given the web’s potential as an educational gateway, a college campus can feel more confining than it did a generation ago.
The day when online schools compete toe-to-toe with their campus-based brethren is still a ways off. The average age of WGU’s student population, after all, is 37. But by offering a competitive alternative in both price and product, online schools present an escape from our student-debt crisis, which some warn has become an economic bubble at risk of bursting. Today’s students have a path forward — filled with more productive, more engaging postgraduate opportunities — thanks to the democratizing power of technology in education.
Shawn DuBravac is the chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)® and the author of Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate. Follow him at @ShawnDuBravac.