Monday, July 27, 2020

Will Online Learning End College As We Know It?

This topic comes close to home, as I am a college professor preparing to teach most of my classes online during the coming fall semester, as thousands of other college classes will be taught during the COVID-19 pandemic.  While I am not privy to my university's decisions about what tuition to charge, I tend to agree with a reporter at Forbes  named Stephen McBride that if students are asked to pay the usual tuition and fees for a vastly reduced online experience, many will feel shortchanged.  And with good reason.

As Denise Trauth, president of Texas State University, has emphasized in her messages to faculty and staff, the in-person part of education is an essential aspect of what it means to go to college.  And that is why she has tried to arrange to offer as many in-person classes as possible this fall, consistent with social distancing and limiting classroom occupancy to 50% of normal.  But such measures are temporary at best, and what McBride is saying is that the transition to online classes is going to expose conventional providers of higher education to extreme competition from startups that will deliver the same degree in the same way for much lower costs.  And that will cause the overpriced higher-education bubble to pop at last.

McBride points out that over the last few decades, the cost of a college education has vastly outstripped inflation.  One factor that he doesn't address directly is the widespread availability of federal-backed student loans.  When the student-loan money spigot was turned on, colleges figured out a way to vacuum it up, and the result is increased costs.  The goal of making college available for more people was met, but at the price of tuition inflation. 

And middle-of-the-road state universities such as Texas State rely increasingly heavily on tuition and fees as the states steadily reduce the fraction of university income that comes from taxes.  Data from 2017 show that only 28% of Texas State's income was from state sources, while a little more than half (52%) came from tuition and fees. 

If anything comes along to upset the applecart of delicately balanced enrollment and expenditures, universities are ill-equipped to do significant budget cutting.  There are not many companies around that have a large fraction of their core employees (read:  tenured professors) with what amount to lifetime-guaranteed jobs until they feel like retiring.  So to make a significant budget cut at a large university, administrators have found that the most effective means is to create an atmosphere of impending doom with threats of closing entire departments.  I know this from experience at my previous institution, which shall remain nameless here but was in Massachusetts, and wasn't Harvard or MIT.  In such a poisonous environment, many of the good expensive people leave for better places, and the ones left are glad to keep their jobs and will take whatever cuts you give them.

Texas universities have already made budget cuts as requested recently by the state government, which is going through its own fiscal woes as tax revenue declines.  All these details are to say that despite precautions taken to deal with the threat of declining enrollment, the ability of state schools to deal with significant sudden drops is strictly limited, as funding formulas include enrollment and would decline precipitously if fewer students attend.

The kind of education McBride envisions would be all-online and much, much cheaper than a conventional college experience.  His back-of-the-envelope estimate (which conveniently ignores things like labs and accreditation requirements) is that you could deliver college for as little as $3000 a year per student.  I think that is low, but not very low.  If all you want to do is teach people online and you want to be a University of Walmart, I'm sure the thing can be done.  Tenure, research, football, buildings, traditions, commencements, and mascots would go out the window.  But people would still get educated, though mainly by computer, as it would still cost too much to hire qualified humans to interact in any meaningful way with the vast numbers of students each system would have to support to deliver costs that low.

In our rude introduction to Zoom and all the other technologies that allowed us to keep universities running past March of last spring, we instructors learned that online teaching is possible, and sometimes even effective.  By most reports, the students didn't like it compared to being in class.  But they recognized the crisis nature of the situation and cooperated as well as they could. 

If online competition similar to what McBride is talking about materializes in a significant way, he may be right that college will never come back, at least in the form we had up till last spring.  But throwing out the baby with the bathwater is not good for the baby, and I hope that young people trying to decide on their educational future will consider more than cost.

I think it's terrible that so many college students wind up with so much student-loan debt, even though that system has given me the job I have.  As a result of the student-loan windfall, colleges have built up a lot of administrative superstructure that is of questionable use, shall we say.  And maybe some competition from online-only outfits will produce some salutary trimming of what is truly not necessary.  But I think there is genuine value in the experience of living in a community dedicated at least nominally to learning, keg parties notwithstanding.  And it's only fair that people should pay something extra for that experience, but how much extra is an open question.

Every new technology brings with it the question, "Now that we can do it, should we do it?"  COVID-19 has given rise to the possibility of converting college massively to online-only at a much lower price.  I do not know how the public at large will respond if given that opportunity.  I suspect that McBride is right in that higher education is going to see more rapid changes in the next few years than we experienced perhaps in the last few decades.  But I hope at the end of it all, we end up with something that's better for students, better for universities, and better for the country as a whole.

Sources:   I thank my wife for bringing my attention to Stephen McBride's article "Why College Is Never Coming Back" at  I obtained my statistics on Texas State University's 2017 budget from a pie chart at

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