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Parker: Online Education Will Supplement, Not Supplant Traditional Colleges

by Matthew Parker

In today’s discussion revolving around higher education, online courses are beginning to dominate the conversation. Whether you are a supporter or a detractor, the fact remains that online education is changing the landscape of college education. Online classes are more flexible, more accessible, and most importantly, they are cheaper. Many people believe that MOOC’s, which are servicing upwards of 100,000 students at one time, and other forms of online education, will eventually replace the traditional four-year college as we know it today. Well as of now, even though the MOOC’s may start with huge numbers, only about 7% of people on average complete the MOOC, according to one study. Also, very few of these MOOC’s actually offer credit for completion, and the one’s that do are not free. So will these MOOC’s and other forms of online education eventually supplant the traditional four-year college? Well, from the results of MOOC’s so far and for other reasons, I believe that online education will not carry the serious consequences that many expect. While some lower-tier institutions may eventually close their doors if prices continue to climb and the online education system is fine-tuned, the traditional college landscape on a whole will remain relatively unscathed.

There are many reasons as to why I believe that the traditional four-year college, as we have come to know them, will remain intact. First, there is already a huge market of untapped students in the category of those that graduate from high school but do not go on to college. For the 2014-2015 school year, there will be around 3.3 million high school graduates, but as of last year, only 65.9% of high school graduates go on to college. That means there will be around 1,125,300 eighteen year-olds that finish high school, but will not go on to college. The main reason for this is the cost of college, so these students would benefit greatly from a cheaper alternative to higher education. If the goal of online education is to make college more accessible and more affordable, online education could reach out to millions of potential students without having a negative effect on the traditional four-year college.

The second reason that online education will not be able to replace traditional four-year colleges is that there are certain limitations that online education will not be able to fix regardless of how many improvements are made to the system. Students that are pre-med will not able to do labs, dissections, etc. without hands on experience with other lab partners while under the watch of a professor. A pre-law student will not be able to participate in moot court or mock trial from his laptop. An engineering major would be hard pressed to collaborate with partners, design a bridge, and then actually create the bridge with their partners. Invaluable experiences such as these would be lost behind a screen, giving four-year colleges a huge advantage over online education that quite simply can’t be mitigated.

Another reason that online education will not fully supplant the traditional four-year college is a little more difficult to define, but nonetheless is vital to the success of students: independent growth. The four-year residential college experience makes the student become more and more independent as the years go on. Many people move off campus after a year or two and begin to learn how to live on their own. Budgeting and time management become vital to a college student’s success, not just in college, but also in the workforce, and these sort of lessons can not be learned in front of a computer. That eighteen year old high school graduate pursuing online education would most likely have to spend his or her next four years or so at home, and then finally upon graduating, would either be sent out into the real world with no prior experience of living alone, or be a 24 year old still living with his or her parents. I think both children and parents would agree that is not an ideal route. Traditional four-year colleges allow for an eighteen year old to naturally mature, and grow more independent as they take on more and more responsibilities.

The final reason that four-year residential college will continue to exist, even with the threat of online education, is an abstract concept that can be extremely difficult to define or quantify: the college experience. The college experience consists of social experiences, friendships, networking, college amenities, athletics, and more. These things all contribute to the personal enhancement of self that online education will never be able to replicate. The college experience can be anything from conversations in the dining hall with people on your floor on the differing views you all have on the role of government, to playing in your conference championship game, to going on a weekend camping trip through your school’s outing club. Some argue that the hefty prices colleges carry far outweigh the benefits of such experiences, and in a way they may be right. The 31 year old single mom may not care about those things, she just wants to go back to college to get her bachelor’s degree because she knows the earning potential with a college degree is a lot more than only having her high school diploma. In that case online education may be an ideal fit. For the average eighteen year old though, with their physical and mental prime ahead of them, the experiences and opportunities afforded to them through a four-year residential college make it an incredibly desirable option. Even with the prospect of student debt, the earning potential with a college degree coupled with “college experience” will forever make the traditional four-year institution the primary vessel of higher education.

While online education continues to grow, there are still far too many flaws and shortcomings to make it a potential threat to the traditional four-year college. Some of these shortcomings will be made up in an unknown amount of time, but others will continue to persist. Colleges will incorporate online components to their curriculum in order to reduce costs and be more accessible, making the prospect of a complete takeover by online education that more implausible. There are still too many things that one can get out of a traditional four-year college that will always make it a far more desirable option than online education.

Matthew Parker, of the Class of 2018, is from Owings, Md.