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Online education is no bubble

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Jun 12, 2013

In his most recent Forbes op-ed, John Tamny calls out online education as the bubble that’s about to burst. He asserts that the traditional college experience will remain intact despite the low-cost advantage of certain online educational providers. The exorbitant cost of college tuition, he argues, will remain unaffected because it is the price parents and kids are willing to pay for future employment or “something scarce in the form of an elite degree that carries weight with employers.”

Here are some statistics for Tamny to consider in his conflation of the “traditional” college experience with the “elite” college experience:

Tamny nevertheless argues that “online education only offers learning that the markets don’t desire, and because it does, its presumed merits are greatly oversold.” As he overlooks the “undesirable” market share of 13.5 million students who attend schools that do not qualify as selective or elite schools, Tamny is actually defining the segment of nonconsumers of a traditional education. And as we know from the astounding numbers of students enrolled in fully online degree programs, this is not a number at which we can sneer and simply dismiss.

True, some students emerge with questionable skills and degrees depending on the online provider; however, we cannot lump together all online providers as predatory recruiters out to divest each student of as much as loan money as possible. Newer, competency-based organizations such as UniversityNow’s Patten University, Western Governor’s University, and Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America are working directly with employers as they develop their curricula and competencies to avoid deliberately what Tamny calls a degree with “very little job-attaining value.”

In fact, some employer partners of these organizations are requesting certificates or tailor-made trainings for their employees, so that their employees can skill-up in the most efficient, accessible, and least expensive manner possible. Most recently, Udacity teamed up with Georgia Tech and AT&T to create a $6600 online Master’s degree in Computer Science. In other partnerships, $5000 of employer tuition assistance will serve as ample funding for an entire competency-based degree program for company employees.

As more working adults return to school, we are learning that four years of college is no guarantee for a career. Indeed, the notion of a long-term career is evolving as we speak, as workers must now be actively responsible for honing and constantly developing new skills for the new technologies and jobs emerging on a day-to-day basis. A degree—even a well-branded degree—is no longer some kind of moving walkway on which we can passively ride for the rest of our working lives.

As employers have become increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with the quality of bachelor’s degree candidates, we cannot simply assume that an elite degree is enough to ensure employment and upward mobility. McKinsey and Chegg’s most recent collaborative survey of over 4900 recent graduates unveils the hardship of newly minted bachelor’s degree-holders from top schools. Fifty percent of the graduates reported that they couldn’t find work in the field they had hoped to enter—including four in ten of those who graduated from the country’s top schools.

One of the most intriguing findings gleaned from the voices of these graduates is that more than the college’s brand and prestige, students found that they should have been more critical of their choice in major: “Half of all graduates express regrets, saying they would pick a different major or school if they had to do it all over again. Students also say that when they were deciding what college to attend, they didn’t consider graduation rates or the job and salary records of graduates.” Indeed, at a more granular level, graduates in the liberal and performing arts fared “the worst across every measure: they tend[ed] to be lower paid, deeper in debt, less happily employed, and slightly more likely to wish they’d done things differently.” It’s not simply that not all degrees are created equal: not all majors are created equal.

Elite institutions will not be able to continue charging families without justifying their costs, and online providers will not simply disappear because they offer an unrecognizable brand. All of the various institutions of higher education will have to think more critically about how they offer learning and how they adapt their curricula to the changing labor market and needs of the workforce.

Michelle R. Weise, PhD

Michelle is the executive director of Sandbox ColLABorative, the R&D lab of strategy and innovation at Southern New Hampshire University. Michelle’s work in fostering innovation is an extension of her prior work as the senior research fellow in higher education at the Christensen Institute.