Online Education: The Best-Case Scenario
By Bryan Caplan
Do you think that online education is going to put traditional universities out of business? Great. Now tell me: Who moves first? It easy to say, “Forget brick-and-mortar college. I’m ‘going’ to Online U.” But what kind of students will actually follow through with this bold plan? The kids who got into Princeton? Ha. UVA? Ha. George Mason? Maybe a few.
Well, how about kids who would have gone to community college?
Bingo. The kind of kids who go to community college just might decide to learn online instead. For them, even I’ll grant that it might be a good idea. After all, the community college completion rate is already awfully low. They’re “two-year colleges,” but only 25% finish in three years. Graduates do experience a sheepskin effect – the market rewards the credential. However, this reward is relatively small – despite the fact that mere graduation shows you’re way above average for a community college student. Perhaps online colleges could match this graduation rate and financial return.
There’s just one problem with this scenario: Community colleges raise only 20% of their revenue from tuition and fees. Third parties (parents not included!) pick up the rest of the tab. So unless online education enjoys comparable funding, it will have to struggle even to be a viable alternative to community college. And if parents suspect that online education is bogus, the advantage of brick-and-mortar schools is greater still. Tell me: How would your parents react if you told them, “I’m going to college in our basement. It’s totally a thing now”?
You might reply that “online education,” as you conceive it, merely means that existing commuter colleges make it easier for students to telecommute to class. That’s a lot easier to believe, but revolutionary it’s not.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The only real cure for the evils of higher education (and lower education) is austerity. Before the market can even try to save us, the government has to sharply cut subsidies for the status quo.