The rising cost of living presents a dilemma for colleges. Higher education’s economic value to students is clear. At the same time, the cost of that vital training is rising beyond American families’ ability to pay. The President proposes rewarding institutions that cut costs and penalizing those that don’t. Can the ingenuity for which American colleges are famous come to the rescue, decreasing costs for students and expanding access – without cutting educational quality, jobs or compensation?
Technology provides an answer
Perhaps. Unfortunately, the mention of educational technology invokes images of standard online education. That’s not what I’m proposing here. While web-based classes can teach effectively with lower costs, they have clear limitations. They eliminate the greatest asset U.S. colleges have to offer – the excellent teaching of world-class faculty. Online courses are usually taught with a textbook and the instructor’s (preferably) short explanatory essays. The onus is on the student to master the required material.
While online education can be ideal for busy, highly motivated adults, how many 18-year-olds have the desire or the discipline to take a significant number of courses online? Many need more than textbook explanations. Most crave interaction with their peers. They depend on the structure of scheduled classes and activities to stay on track. Without these, it’s hard to imagine the majority graduating on time. Besides, courses with lab work require presence on campus. So, while online education can save tuition dollars, it’s not a useful option for most undergraduates.
A new option lets families tailor education outlays
New technology could offer the best of both worlds – teaching by excellent professors at the lower cost and expanded access of online education. That technology is the virtual classroom. Students see and hear the same lectures and rich media enjoyed by their on-campus classmates. They just do it on the Internet. Instead of taking exams, they’d write papers to demonstrate mastery of required material. Studies find students can learn as well online as they do on-campus. Writing and applying new ideas rather than just memorizing test answers may be a major reason. Adding world-class lectures to the mix could further improve student success. Many courses, core curriculum and advanced, could be presented both virtually and in-person. In fact, virtual lectures featuring the institution’s best teachers could considerably increase program value and attractiveness.
Institutions that develop robust virtual classroom programs can substantially increase revenue and cut costs . First, freshman enrollment can significantly expand to include students who because of distance, costs or preference favor taking most or all of their courses in the virtual environment. Many full-paying international students not accepted to on-campus programs may choose this option. Increased revenues from hundreds of additional undergraduates can enable tuition reductions that will bring rewards from Washington.
Virtual classes could cut college costs, since one excellent professor can teach a great number of students simultaneously, with lesser-paid faculty members grading their papers. This can give accepted students the option of lowering their tuition by varying the mix of on-campus and virtual courses. Students can further reduce outlays by taking a “virtual semester” at home.
Virtual education may not be the answer. But clearly, the same ingenuity that helped colleges produce ideas that have transformed American lives must now transform higher education to the benefit of students, families and institutions.
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