On Political Books

May/ June 2013 Revolution for Thee, Not Me

Online learning will transform the nature of college for everybody—except the affluent.

By Daniel Luzer

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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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Jennifer on May 07, 2013 4:37 PM:

    Thanks so much for providing this perspective. I come from a working class background and would never have attended college were it not for the state systems. I got a fantastic education in history that has enriched my life immeasurably.

    We must protect these institutions that are central to a more equal and just society, and realize that the money to fund them is there--it's the political will to sustain them that's lacking.

  • Isernia on May 10, 2013 7:38 PM:

    Social mobility is also a factor to consider in what kind of a college one attends.
    My parents were immigrants, illiterate and unschooled and yet their four children did very well in high school and public colleges. Their grandchildren were smart enough to attend Ivy League colleges, so in just three generations our family went from working class to upper middle class. That American Dream no longer exists in the U.S. today, alas.
    These internet communication courses which strive practical job skills will only further separate the haves and the have nots. Sadly, the cultural gap is added to the educational gap articulates the decreasing mobility in our American society.

  • Demosthenes on May 30, 2013 12:32 PM:

    Ify you can afford it, private schools are nuch better; going to state universities really is a lousy deal nowadays. I attended the U of Illinois (Urbana) in the early 80s. Most classes were relatively small, and taught by full professors. It really was a terrific experience and bargain-priced to boot. A year ago, I took my son (a high school senior) to visit. The budget crisis has ruined undergraduate education. According to our tour guide (who are students that are supposed to say good stuff about the school), the average class size has ballooned to 140, and students rarely interact with professors. Moreover, the cost is astonishingly high: approximately $30,000 (including room and board). My son hated the school, and refused to apply to any state universities. Instead, he applied to smaller private schools. He will attend a medium-sized "elite" private university, with average class sizes in the low 20s, and with full professors teaching all classes. Oh, and did I mention that private schools are very generous with merit and financial aid?

  • Douglas6 on May 31, 2013 3:03 AM:

    (1) Would you rather listen to a lecture on medieval European history from one of the world's experts or from the pedestrian Ph.D. at your local university? MOOCs give everyone the chance to learn from the best.
    (2) We are moving towards the Khan model - students will listen to lectures from the masters and read books on their own time, and in class they will do problems and have discussions with teachers. The real question is who those in-class teachers will be. At most schools, they will not be researchers or faux-researchers, although they might have Ph.Ds.

  • Ivesian on July 30, 2013 11:30 AM:

    For years now, universities have "unbundled" the faculty career. Instead of paying a full-time wage for teaching, advising students, administration, and research, universities hire as many adjuncts as possible, and pay them a la carte only for the "teaching" portion. In order to make a living, these adjunct faculty must either 1) work at multiple institutions, or 2) develop non-academic careers simultaneously.

    So it's not surprising that incoming students want to do the same thing, taking courses from multiple sources and forgoing university perks that they are not using.