Higher education looks completely different than it did a few decades ago. What does the future hold for students in an age driven by the Internet and technological innovation?
People have been questioning the necessity of a college degree for years. Many high school students continue to debate their parents on the issue, as the perception of higher education has shifted in the age of the Internet. What was once a vital stepping stone toward getting a sustainable career is now viewed as a little more than a piece of paper. When you factor in the rising costs of tuition, books, and campus housing, it’s no wonder that many young people prefer to carve out their own educational path.
The College Experience: Rising Costs & Declining Value
Recent events have put the value of higher education at the center of some important national conversations. When it came out that actress Lori Laughlin paid for her daughter’s admission to the University of Southern California in 2018, many saw this as evidence of a more widespread, systemic problem. For years, wealthy individuals have used their extensive means to secure positions for their children and grandchildren in elite schools. With this latest revelation, many people began to question whether a college degree even means anything anymore.
The COVID-19 pandemic also drew attention to the issue of bloated costs in the higher education system. Most schools have switched to online coursework to help stem the spread of the virus. This means that, by and large, the expenses to facilitate in-person learning have been greatly reduced. Nonetheless, tuitions remain historically high. This begs the question: where is all that money going? In the past, high tuition could be justified by the cost of maintaining a large campus, as well as faculty and staff to assist students. But if students are now attending lectures from home, why do they still need to pay the same exorbitant prices?
Naturally, one could argue that college is not a requirement. Additionally, students don’t have to go to an Ivy League school just to get a degree. There are more affordable options out there. However, our culture has become increasingly obsessed with name recognition. If a potential employer sees Harvard on your resume, that’s a huge plus for you; if they see a community college that nobody’s ever heard of, it could actually hurt your chances of getting the job.
It’s true that community colleges and trade schools are more affordable and can still offer high-quality education, but their lack of name recognition puts students at a serious disadvantage. According to ValuePenguin, the average cost of community college tuition for in-state students is $4,864 per year, while students can expect to pay about $9,970 in annual tuition at a four-year public school. Both of these numbers pale in comparison to a private four-year institution like Harvard, which charges $51,904 per year for tuition, to say nothing of books, transportation, food, or housing costs.
When you have a system in which wealthy people can pay to get into schools that provide more “valuable” degrees and the cost of all forms of higher education is rising, it shows that higher education is inherently rigged in favor of the rich. Sure, excellent students can qualify for scholarships or get part-time jobs to help cover the costs, but most will end their college experience with debilitating student loan debt. This means that many qualified students are forced to attend schools that carry virtually no name recognition (while still paying thousands per year) or forego the college experience entirely.
Online Education Could Help Democratize a Broken System
I’ve written about my disappointing college experience in the past. While I was fortunate enough to get into a great school and meet some fine people, I simply did not see the value in what I was doing there. I felt college was failing me for the value I was paying, thus, I could only imagine the students who had to take out student loans. Fortunately, we’re working to create an alternative path for young people besides college with Dormzi, but it’ll take some time of course until we’re a true competitor to a college route. At the end of the day, it felt like little more than an expensive piece of paper and something to check off my bucket list.
I know that I’m not the only one who felt this way, either. Many people I’ve spoken with have chosen to quit or forego the higher education experience because the end result simply does not justify the time, money, and energy needed to get there. However, the recent move toward online learning could help change this predicament for future generations.
In years past, getting an online degree was generally regarded as a waste of time. Institutions like the University of Pheonix were widely derided by employers and even educators, as graduates found that their degrees held virtually no weight in the job market. If a community college degree didn’t help you in an interview, an online degree could actually hurt you.
However, with the advent of COVID-19 and the movement of education to the virtual realm, people are starting to take online degrees much more seriously. Even Ivy League schools like Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, and Yale (just to name a few) offer partial or full online degree programs. Now, you can get a high-quality education — that actually carries weight in the job market — right from the comfort of your own home. That said, costs will still need to come down before most students can take advantage of these new opportunities.
Thankfully, as more people come to take online education seriously, the market for online degrees will become more competitive. Tuition costs will come down, allowing even more people to see the benefits. Additionally, the improvement of communication technologies and rising Internet speeds across the globe ensure that the online classroom experience won’t differ substantially from the in-person classroom. In light of declining enrollment figures, online degrees could prove to be the shot in the arm that our education system desperately needs.
The Bottom Line
While institutions of higher learning may be jumping on the online bandwagon for the first time, it’s important to note that people have been learning online for years. In fact, students have been studying subjects like computer coding and languages online for more than two decades. Some are even saying that it’s the best time in history to learn a new language. This goes to show that online learning doesn’t have to be attached to a degree to hold value. In any case, whether you want to get a legitimate online degree or just take some classes in your spare time, the Internet is opening up new opportunities for students going forward.
Originally published on Medium.