Can Online Learning Bend the Cost Curve for Higher Education?

The New York Times recently reported that between 1999 and 2009 tuition at public four-year colleges rose 73 percent on average and 34 percent at their private counterparts, all while family incomes fell 7%.  The rising cost of college has become the center of national debate.  It has made college an unattainable dream for some and, more commonly, has burdened those students who do attend with crushing debt.  At least 2 in 3 bachelor’s degree recipients’ graduate with debt and many are then forced to put off major purchases such as a car or house with broader effects for the national economy at-large.

The Wall Street Journal recently sat down at the All Things Digital conference in California with Stanford University president John Hennessy and Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, a non-profit online-learning organization, to discuss how online learning efforts offered by both traditional four-year universities and organizations such as Khan Academy might help bend the cost curve for colleges.

Mr. Khan points out that universities usually justify rising costs by pointing to the need to hire top rate faculty, expand facilities, and have top flight students services while, somewhat conversely, students say they are willing to take on $60,000 of debt only because they “need the credential” to get a job.  Universities are raising tuition to create an immersive educational experience while many students are paying higher and higher tuition because they need the diploma to be competitive in the job market.  Mr. Khan argues that an online educational experience could essentially deliver that “credential” without the high costs on both school and student of providing a holistic experience.  This would require a paradigm shifts of sorts, where credentials could be earned based on what you know and what you have learned and not where you acquired the knowledge.

Similarly, under Mr. Hennessy, Stanford has begun putting lectures online that would otherwise be delivered in large lecture halls and using classrooms for courses that inherently require person to person interaction.  Obviously, the more universities can relegate classes to the internet without sacrificing quality, the less need there is to continually build and upgrade physical learning facilities and to recruit more and more faculty to staff the classes.  Mr. Hennessy predicts that there may eventually be a hybrid type model at major universities, where students take a major portion of their classes online and go into the classroom only occasionally.  This will be useful especially for associate degrees or degrees that lend themselves to cyber learning, such as Internet programming.  While the outcomes of such efforts are too recent to be evaluated, technology will no doubt continue to play a role in the growing debate about how to cut down college costs.

Posted by: Sean Norris

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Photo Credit: Asa Mathat of All Things Digital


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