Will the pandemic pop the higher education bubble?

College Fix thinks it may.

… when large universities shift their course offerings online during a global pandemic, it might get students wondering – why would they continue to pay exorbitant fees for dorms, meal plans, and parking, when they can get the same instruction sitting at home in front of their computers?

Once a large university proves it can provide a reasonable facsimile of its course offerings without the enormous expense, students may start to demand they do so.

College affordability and student debt are two of the most pressing issues to young Americans today – they would no doubt look favorably at any arrangement that allows them a way to finish a college degree without significantly hamstringing their economic futures … If a high school student is offered an online Ivy League-level education at one-third the cost, many would no doubt jump at the chance.

That is why, as coronavirus has spread and the move to online classes has gotten underway, some academics have begun to warn others about the dangers of posting their lesson plans online. Last week, Arkansas State University Assistant Professor of Sociology Rebecca Barrett Fox wrote a post on her blog titled “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.”

“For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it,” Barrett Fox says, arguing that students watching an online class may not be technologically advanced, or might not have the right technology to view the class, or may be working longer hours in their everyday jobs to protect the public from COVID-19.

In essence, Barrett Fox is arguing in favor of protecting students by giving them a worse education – even though they’re paying the same tuition.

But the subtext is very different — no doubt some academics are concerned that if professors did a good job of promoting online education, it could make many other academic jobs obsolete.

University faculty members promoting online education would be akin to McDonald’s employees singing the wonders of automated ordering machines that will eventually cost them all their jobs.

There’s more at the link.

I strongly support this concept.  I have four university qualifications – two Bachelors degrees, a post-graduate certificate and a Masters degree – and every one of them was obtained through part-time and/or distance learning, because my parents couldn’t afford to fund my full-time tertiary education.  (This was in the days before the Internet, too;  everything had to be done by mail.  The Internet has made distance education vastly easier and more interesting.)  I don’t think my education suffered at all through not being on a full-time campus.  In fact, in many ways it was better for me, because I was earning my living while studying, and gaining experience every year.  Later, when I became a manager, one of my strongest hiring principles was to put experience ahead of education.  If I had two people with the same Bachelors degree, but one had three years on campus plus one year’s work experience, while the other had six years’ work experience while completing the same degree more slowly via distance education, guess who I hired?

I think far too much time and money is wasted at university on the “party culture”.  It does students no good at all, and does nothing to prepare them for the responsibilities of life.  In fact, it seems to make many of them “special snowflakes” who are less prepared to face life when they graduate than when they were freshmen!  Furthermore, the student loan “industry” is burdening young graduates with exorbitant debts they find very difficult to repay.  If the cost of a degree can be drastically reduced by online and/or distance learning, it’ll remove a great deal of that problem.  If a large number of academic and support staff lose their jobs as a result, I won’t shed a tear for them.  Let them earn an honest living for a change, far from the shelter of their academic cocoon, just as most of their students will be forced to do!

If the coronavirus pandemic can help to solve those problems, it’ll be an unexpected positive side effect of an otherwise very nasty situation.  I’ll take whatever benefit we can get from it, thank you very much!



  1. I have felt for a long time that distance/online learning was the future of higher education. Obviously specialties such as Medicine or lab work for physics, chemistry, engineering, etc. as well as some student teaching need to be done hands on. However, reducing the campus residency from four years to one or even using community colleges for access to the physical lab with an online meeting afterward with the professor, will be a dramatic savings. In addition, competition will drive out those tenured professors who just put in their time until retirement in favor of the really good ones. The biggest obstacle I see is is the academic accreditation boards getting over their prejudice against "Mail Order" degrees. This "crisis" may force them to recognize online course work.

  2. I have some experience with this – I earned my BSEE thru a combination of in-class, distance and on-line education. This was done over a period of 14 years, working full-time and raising a family. The first basic classas were in-person at the local community college, then class lectures were delivered via DVD with occasional visits from the professor, and eventually the lectures moved to internet downloads with Skype sessions as needed. This all was a developmental process for the university – their goal was to expand their STEM presence into an area that had no other access to such, and to reach non- traditional students who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to attend normal classes.

    It worked for me (and others). It wasn't easy, though. In general, online delivery works well for those who are motivated and disciplined enough to make it work. For the courses that I was in, it seemed to work well for the non-traditional students, those who had been out in the real world already and were highly motivated. It did not work as well for the traditional young students – very easy to be distracted, lose focus, or procrastinate.

    Online education may indeed be the future, but it isn't going to be a quick, drop-in change. Like any other new system, there will be bumps in the road.

  3. What an insightful post! I hadn't thought of this (current crisis) as way restructuring of the education industry!

    It's going to be tough, student loans are the goose laying golden eggs for the banking industry and the education guild has a lot to lose if we apply modern technology to what they sell.

    This could be the bright spot, maybe the only bright spot in this terrible turn of events.

  4. This may well also kill off the sacred repository of 'safe spaces' and all that rubbish. In turn, we could see the self-responsibility turnaround that ends political correctness in the next generation.

  5. As a technical college instructor who's currently waiting for the other shoe to drop, or the virus to eat the rest of the semester (we are on an extended break until March 30), I read the piece about moving curriculum online very differently. I took it to mean that for courses that aren't already designed for online delivery, it is better to get something up now than to wait until that course is in its ideal form for online delivery. Teaching face to face, which I do, and teaching online, which I've taken a course on how to do, are two very different propositions, with hybridized courses being different from them both. Moving a face to face or hybrid course online in the midst of a crisis compounds all those difficulties.

  6. My wife used on-line classes from a non-local state college because the local state college didn't have afternoon or evening classes. Both a BA and an MA.

    The only times we physically traveled to the non-local state college was for graduation ceremonies and for her to confer with her Master's advisor as she was doing a thesis program (when all of her fellow Master's students were doing a non-thesis degree.)

    Yes. There are some things classwork and labwork can only achieve. But for most of it? At home, on a boat, on a plane, on a train…

    It is about time that Big Education (which is as powerful as any other Big Enterpise) gets kicked in the cobbers.

    Local State College got so bad towards undergraduates that two things happened. The local community college morphed into a 4 year college/community college/branch of St. Leo's (who rent room space) in order to service the needs of the undergraduates. And the state legislature put the kabosh on the local state college's plans of being only a Masters and PHD program university, except for the 4 year BA in being a Gym Rat so they could keep their precious football team.

  7. So I got my masters via distance learning when the internet thing was starting up. Distance learning works if you are self-motivated. Studies show equivalent or better performance to classroom learning, which should not be surprising.

    Switching to distance learning will virtually if not totally eliminate the BS degrees, and we will get back to the purpose of providing work related education. Who knows, we may even start trying to teach students to think again, instead of emote.

  8. With you Peter. Back in my early Navy days higher ed was correspondence, occasionally with a rep onboard. (Brave souls, they…) Now I get technical courses for professional updates mostly, but all remote. I am contemplating a welding course that will not work for, however.
    I think another positive for this would be less peer pressure to the left. My son came back from college with a bunch of wild ideas that sure didn't come out of a book.

  9. But… but… this could totally destroy the Ivy League and its social network!
    Remember, the true purpose of an elite university is not education but providing an opportunity for the offspring of the upper crust to mingle for a few years, reinforcing the existing social hierarchy.
    Without in-person universities, there'll have to be some alternative. A multi-year camp in the Poconos?
    Hmmm, business opportunity! Come up with the future of exclusive, expensive social-networking opportunities for 20ish brats of the wealthy. A "welcome to adult life" boot camp in West Virginia, maybe?

  10. If you want the "inside baseball" scoop on why college fees are so high and educational quality so low, please read the blog "Confessions of a College Professor". Now sadly at an end, Professor Doom (RIP) wrote extensively on the student loan scams and the burden of administrative drones on the teaching staff.

  11. There will be more movement to online classes and degrees over time and current events may accelerate it.

    That said, online classes, etc. are most likely to work with older students getting a degree part time or going back to school. For those just out of high school much of college is the social aspect. Many women are as interested in an "Mrs degree" as a college degree.

    Online classes also don't work as well when looking for internships or a job after graduation. That's fine for those already working, they can look for a better job or be promoted by their current employer. 22 year old kids just graduating will have a harder time of it.

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