Trade-Offs

If online college is set to be the norm, here's what your student of the future will be missing

November 17, 2017
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.Jayme Thornton Photography

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, just published a book -- and told an audience of 1,500 people at the annual Salesforce innovation conference -- that claims half of colleges and universities in the U.S. will go bankrupt in ten to fifteen years. He's actually more pessimistic than that: "If you're asking whether the providers get disrupted within a decade, I might bet that it takes nine years rather than ten."

He's not the only one with this view. The U.S. Department of Education and Moody's Investors Service Project forecast that closures of small colleges and universities will triple, and there will be a 100% increase in mergers.

The reason? There are many, but Christensen says the main driver is the rise of online for-profit colleges, such as Phoenix Online, ITT Tech, Trump University, etc. These schools siphon money from traditional schools with promises of full-on legit degrees for a fraction of the price, and colleges, especially small private ones not eligible for much government funding, depend largely on enrollment fees for income (they also depend on alumni donations, as my inbox constantly reminds me). Moody's reports that because these colleges are often tuition dependent, a decline or stagnation in enrollment starts a vicious cycle: Their “reduced ability to invest in academic programs, student life, and facilities” means they won't be able to offer the extras that attract students.

Goodbye NFL Sunday Ticket on three big screens at once. Goodbye row of massage chairs in front of three big screens showing NFL Sunday Ticket.

But online schools don't only disrupt bottom lines, they'll also fundamentally change the way we learn -- but for the better? Maybe: Students will have more access to more subjects and teachers and will to some extent be able to design their own course of study, perhaps making more practical programs for a chosen career path.

But who the hell knows what they really want to do at that age? And for those of who thought you did, how many of you have changed plans since graduation? I had no idea what I wanted, and I've changed plans maybe a dozen times.

This is all to say online schools might be good for some stuff, but they can't replace everything the college experience offers. I'm not just going to list stuff about booze and babes, but here are a few components of a college education you simply won't find online.

Human connection

Online colleges are often attractive to older people who either didn't go to college when they were younger or who want to complete an abandoned degree. This is totally understandable. If you have a family, you don't have to relocate or commute; you can mold your study time around your work and family life; and you don't have to put up with any hungover know-it-all little shits who look at you weird.

On the other hand you'll lose the overwhelming benefits of human connection, and it seems that at least for now there's no way around that. At school you make friends with people you'd otherwise have never met, but just as importantly you also meet people you despise. They introduce you to new ideas you like, but just as importantly they introduce you to new ideas that are completely stupid. You learn how to disagree in person while showing and receiving respect, without the temptation of knee-jerk shit-flipping at a name with no face or feelings in an online comments section. You learn to work with people in groups, how to lead, how to follow, how to talk, how to listen, and there's no virtual substitute for a community like that.

"Life skills"

College is a petri dish for decisions. Decisions, the pursuit thereof, and their outcomes teach you what people call "life skills," which is a grab-bag of personality adjustments, resourcefulness, diplomacy, perseverance, expanding your taste in music, art, movies, books, etc., learning how to talk to attractive people, what sports you're actually good at, how to handle failure, how to never give up, how to give up, how to buy groceries, how to write, how to make spaghetti, how high is too high, how to navigate the bureaucracy of the Emergency Room, how to stretch a buck, how bus routes work, how to pour a beer so there's not much foam, how to make too much foam go down in invariably gross ways that involve your body, how to avoid the clap, how to disagree, how to live with people you don't like, and how to sign a lease, pay rent, set up utilities, split costs of living, pay bills, and take derelict roommates to small claims court. These among other things, many of which are unpredictable and unique to each experience.

Obviously most of those things aren't unique to college, but a college campus is a compressed, controlled environment that, ideally, forces you to develop the skills to negotiate a wide array of adult challenges in a short amount of time. If you have the means and the time to attend a physical school and choose instead to learn online, the choice will deprive you of a lot more than face-to-face learning.

Laundry skills

There are several. For one, it's many students' first baby step out of the nest. You also learn how to navigate the pitfalls of pile build-up; you learn you can wear pants several days in a row, and if you just buy more socks and underwear this laundry problem will disappear; you learn to break bills into quarters; you develop resourcefulness and financial management skills by saving every quarter you find, anywhere, including under your roommate's desk where he won't miss it, probably; you learn that buying more socks and underwear has actually made the problem exponentially worse, which you may or may not understand is a lesson in procrastination; you learn the tradeoff of bulk commerce, that it's easier to do little things but cheaper to do one big thing; eventually you smell better -- and you have the pride of knowing that for once in your life it's not because of your mom.

Sports

You can join a rec league if you're studying online, and you can still follow your favorite teams, but there's no sports experience quite like the college experience. You've got the obvious face-painting, tailgating, football and basketball fanaticism in big schools, but there's also a wide selection of other sports to check out. College introduced me to rugby, for instance, and rugby is awesome.

Greek life

I don't know what online greek life would look like, but we need a TV series about it stat. Then again, for many people the absence of Greek life is firmly in the "pro-online" column.

Classroom connection

Some classes are great online, particularly objective ones such as mathematics or computer science that already lean heavily on textbooks or inculcate almost exclusively accumulated information. Other subjects such as liberal arts or the hands-on scientific disciplines require real-world connections to maximize their effectiveness. Virtual discussions don't make for good debates.

Moreover, the leading driver of alumni donations is a student's one-on-one interactions with a teacher or other mentor. In other words, the most valuable thing to students and universities alike is the in-person classroom experience. Which brings us to...

How to help

If you don't want to see your school disappear into bankruptcy or a merger, you can definitely help. It sucks, but the best way to help really is to donate. Small schools need money. Make sure they spend it wisely.

And remember that only 29% of Americans have a bachelor's degree, and only 11% have a graduate degree. Online and for-profit schools might hook you, but they'll also let you off the hook -- they have some of the highest dropout rates in the country. So with that in mind, I'll leave you with a warning: here are some of the worst colleges in America.

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