Online College Is Worth Just Half Of An In-Person Education

A college education delivered online is worth half as much as one earned traditionally, in person.

That, it seems, is the opinion of lawmakers in Kansas who have advanced a proposal mandating 50% refunds for tuition paid last spring and fall for online classes, when colleges lurched to remote programs to grapple with Covid-19.

Since, the sentiment regarding online classes has been shockingly bad and shockingly consistent across all platforms and education levels. People hate it. Recent college graduates have worried that their degrees will be discounted or devalued as “pandemic degrees.” And, based on the numbers of new college enrollees, a significant chunk of potential students have decided that online college, even out of necessity, is not what they want and are staying home.

Frankly, they’re right.

In just the past few weeks, two stories have surfaced that are emblematic of today’s online college existence.

The New York Post has a story on a professor who completed a full, two hour lecture to his online class using Zoom, while entirely on mute. In late January, a student in an online course in Canada found out that his professor had died the previous year. The school said there was a note in the syllabus. But the class rolled on online, dead professor and all.

Let’s just say that these are not great examples of quality education. While we’re at it, let’s also agree that neither of these would have been possible in a live, in person classroom. Someone would have noticed a deceased lecturer.

Whether you consider those examples funny or sad, they – and the uncountable examples like them – unquestionably devalue the perceived quality of online learning. They, and the actually awful experiences of teachers and students in online learning, make a mockery of the pundits and investors who have spent a decade insisting that online programs were as good or better than in person ones. They are not and never were. And the growing public awareness of their shortcomings was not just predictable, it was predicted.

Last March, I wrote why this Covid-19 induced experiment in mass online education would, “not go well.” I said that teachers would be shocked by the lack of engagement, the clunky technology, the spike in cheating and that schools would learn that online classes cost considerably more than in person options, in no small part due to the profit-seeking companies that sell and manage them. 

Even so, and whether it becomes policy or not, the proposed refunds in Kansas are significantly more important to the future of college than predictions or embarrassing online learning gaffs. That’s because in Kansas, state leaders are deliberately setting policy that devalues online learning as a price point, being clear that it is actually worth less. Half as much, to be precise.

That’s devastating because higher education exists on a perceived value system. Harvard can charge more because people think it’s worth more, that the return value in career and prestige is higher than other options. If states, schools or the public think online programs as less than, they will be. That will, in turn, depress prices and demand and perceived value in a reinforcing race to the bottom of price, perception and quality.    

If that happens, when that happens, it will be a catastrophe for the multi-billion dollar industry that is packing and selling online schooling as well as the schools that increasingly exist on online programs. That’s true because, as mentioned, online programs don’t cost less to run. In fact, done well at all, they often cost more. If their prices fall, if schools can’t charge the same for them, as is being proposed in Kansas, well, that’s a problem the size of Kansas. Probably bigger.

And why do Kansas lawmakers think people who took online classes should pay just half the tuition of regular classes?

The proposal’s sponsor, Representative Sean Tarwater, did not respond to a request for comment but he was quoted in the local paper saying, “I’ve talked to many parents who tell me that their kids aren’t learning, that several of them watch their kids cheat on their final exams because they take it together.”

The kids aren’t learning. Cheating is out of control. Again, agree with the refund policy or not, he’s right on both counts.

Even before Kansas lawmakers decided to try to discount online college over quality fears, students themselves sued colleges, alleging that “any degree issued on the basis of online … classes will be diminished for the rest of [the students’] lives.” And that “online instruction is not commensurate with the same classes being taught in person.” Many of those suits have been settled, most with generous refunds, implying that the colleges themselves recognize – or at least do not want to contest – that online education is “not commensurate” with in person teaching and learning.

Teachers and students already get it. If schools drop the charade and state budget-writers start to also, the game is over. And, as already predicted, that won’t end well.

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