By Hannah Smith
When I first heard about the ease of obtaining an education from an Ivy League university with little to no expense online, I had a twinge of resentment toward my soon-to-be-acquired liberal arts degree. I had a similar feeling when I first heard Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting proclaim: “You blew 150k on an education you could have gotten in $1.50 in late fees from the library!”
But in hindsight, I don’t think this resentment and concern was well founded—in either case. While this new academic approach will no doubt change the world of higher education — and probably for the better — it will not replace schools like the one that I attend. While I do see the use of online education expanding in the near future, I don’t think it will precipitate the downfall of small and private universities.
My school is tiny. The total number of students barely exceeds 500. The class sizes are small. Students and professors know each other by name. Campus-wide inside jokes are, perhaps pathetically, the norm. In many ways, it is the opposite of the 30,000-student online classroom at Harvard.
My school prides itself on going beyond merely depositing knowledge; professors strive to craft the way that we argue, whether or not they agree with what we believe. Leaders teach us how to question the outside world but also those in our inner circles. The goal is to teach us how to reason, even if that means we might ultimately disagree with the principles taught by a given professor. This is not always the case, of course, but it is the ideal.
The common worry is that the expansion of the online classroom would lead to the ultimate decimation of such ideals. But I think we are often asking the wrong questions on this matter. Will the use of online education become increasingly widespread in the coming years? Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t we use the Internet to educate people? But will it replace the small classroom settings so adored by my professors and classmates? Probably not. It may replace lecture halls and various forms of self-education, but I don’t see a disintegration of the market for small schools merely because of the development of accredited online education of a much higher caliber (in the form of MOOCs and state universities online) than we have seen in the past (in the form of the University of Phoenix and other for-profit institutions that skimp on full-time faculty, libraries and student services).
The biggest change we will likely see is the democratization of higher education. With the average private college tuition according to College Board at $32,405 a year and public college at $9,410, college has long been out of the picture for many. The demand for a more affordable means of obtaining a college degree is growing, and the best way to do that without a large government expense seems to be through online education.
Online classes erase the professor-student relationship and move past discussion to the mere sharing of information. While it is not the ideal, just as reading a book does not replace going to class, it offers an alternative to simply giving up on college because one doesn’t fancy the idea of being drowned in debt as a 22 year old. The primary market for this new education path will likely be the 67 percent of Americans, according to Census, in their upper 20s who do not have a college degree, and those much older who have spare time and wish to grow their knowledge on a particular subject.
The online era will not cause the extinction of the classroom and of quality, liberal arts institutions. Rather, it will expand the accessibility of higher education in an affordable way.
Hannah Smith is a recent graduate of The King’s College in New York City, where she studied politics, philosophy and economics. She wrote this for an in-class essay contest.