Online learning will transform the nature of college for everybody—except the affluent.
But these experiences may just be upper-class luxuries. A dichotomy already exists between America’s well-funded and prestigious colleges and the rest of them. The experience the average student has at Morrisville State College, for instance, is vastly different from the experience of a student at Columbia or Swarthmore. This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. Prior to World War II, learning beyond high school was unbound too. Education and training for most people didn’t take place on a traditional college campus: for most of the nineteenth century, a university education was essentially restricted to the American rich; the rest of the country received post-secondary training in the form of trade schools and apprenticeships. Under the new system it appears we would be returning to this two-tiered system: traditional college for the moneyed, and alternative training for everyone else.
This shift may be inevitable given the relentless cost pressures facing traditional colleges and universities, but whether it proves to be a healthy change for American society remains to be seen. Under the rosy scenario described by education futurists like Selingo, entrepreneurs will develop high-quality technology that engages and challenges students and allows more of them to obtain work-ready degrees and credentials quickly and cheaply. But there is a darker scenario in which the less prestigious schools that make up half to three-quarters of four-year colleges either disappear altogether or are transformed into something very different. The students who would have gone to these schools and lack the income, preparedness, or smarts to get into the remaining higher-prestige institutions will be forced to take the equivalent of their freshman and sophomore years online. They may well find the format lonely and difficult, and then conclude that college isn’t really for them—never having experienced the real thing.
Given the current 90 percent dropout rate in most MOOCs, an 8-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses offered by community colleges, the 6.5 percent graduation rate even at the respected Western Governors University, and the ambiguity of many other higher education reform ideas, there’s good reason to think that an unbound future might not be so great.
The best American innovations in education were the Land-Grant College Act of 1862, which helped create a system of public universities, and the GI Bill of 1944, which ensured that an entire generation had the money to attend college. This widespread access to the college experience enabled people from working-class backgrounds to advance en masse into professional jobs that required reasoning and logic and extensive knowledge of the world. The question is whether or not we will continue this trend or simply give up and say that a few online classes and specialized training are good enough for the majority of Americans.
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