Student Loans Nightmare? On Line, High Quality Education Will Come To the Rescue Soon enough people will realize that it is possible to receive quality education via the internet. And this will be the end of traditional and super expensive universities

By Paolo von Schirach

February 2, 2014

WASHINGTONBloomberg Businessweek just published a scary report on the student loan crisis in the US.  Millions of young Americans finance their (outrageously expensive) college education via large student loans. After they graduate (those who do) they find themselves with a mountain of debt that prevents them from doing many of the things that young professionals would normally do: buy an apartment, get married, have kids. The weight of their debt is just too overwhelming.

Absurd costs

A personal problem multiplied by millions of cases inevitably became a political problem. And the politicians came out with fixes, such as softer loans, more time to repay, a cap on interest rates that can be charged, and so forth. (By the way, most of these loans are either made or somehow guaranteed by the federal government). But these are only palliatives. The reality is that, just like in health care, in America there is an incredible mismatch between the value of what is offered to the consumer when it comes to higher education and the price charged. We could go on and on discussing what could be done to stop this absurd rise in the cost of a degree. But here is a better idea.

Put it on line

How about a new and different way to deliver high quality higher eduction at a fraction of the current prices? Sounds crazy? Not really. In fact there is already a great deal of successful experimentation in this area. As you may have guessed, it is all based on the opportunities created by fast and affordable internet. Simply stated, today it is quite possible for the best minds in America (and beyond) to put together a curriculum with state of the art instruction, with customized interactive exercises and more, and put it on line, so that millions can access it, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional university course.

In other words, you do not have to pay absurdly high tuition to have the privilege to enroll in the class of Professor X who is the leading light on robotics or nanotechnology. Professor X will put his entire course on line, and you will be able to access it from Cleveland (or Katmandu, if you have decent internet connectivity over there).

Of course, there are other critical issues that need to be addressed. For some degrees you need practical experiences, hands on laboratory experiments, and what not. All this requires going to a bricks and mortar facility, using sophisticated equipment and interacting with fellow students and faculty. This is true. But a lot of the instruction is still classroom instruction, and this can be successfully “canned” and distributed on line. 

Psychological barriers

Sure enough, there is a psychological barrier that still prevents most consumers from taking this new concept seriously. In our culture we believe that you have to be “on campus” in order to have a “real” education. This is the way it is; and this is the way it has been –for centuries. Everything else is second or third rate. 

Undoubtedly, this is what we are used to. But, as I said, at least in principle, today almost anybody can have access to the best thinking of the best minds in the world. Once the lectures of the top Stanford or MIT faculty are placed on line, what is the difference between “being” in the classroom and watching the same thing on line? Almost none. 

Critics may argue that education is also about the enriching experience of being part of a community, exchanging thoughts and ideas with fellow students and instructors, participating in extra curricular activities and a lot more. And, of course, you cannot get all this on line. True enough. 

Residual value of traditional structures

And so, we may think of ways in which, depending on the degree pursued, students may still have to go to a college. But it would not have to be for the standard four years. Anyway, you get the general idea. Until today we have been stuck with the notion that the only reliable way to provide instruction to young people is by setting extraordinarily complex and super expensive higher learning structures that have to provide not just instruction, but cafeteria services, dormitories, gyms, medical care, security services and more. And to do all this universities need to hire and pay armies of administrators, accountants, pay roll specialists, secretaries and more.

And all this gets rolled into the tuition fees charged to students. But now we have other tools that can accomplish most, if not all, of what is needed without the overhead that traditional universities have to carry. This will be done by transforming the modality to deliver the actual instruction, so that it can be accessed literally by millions instead of being restricted to the happy few who can enroll. And the reasons for going in this new direction is that the costs associated with the new internet-based modalities are a fraction of the traditional methods.   

Same value, at a fraction of the cost

At some point this reality: “same value, at a fraction of the cost” will sink in. And then you will see a gigantic migration from traditional colleges to on-line, quality education. And this will be an extraordinarily good development. Quality higher education will become a public good, something that, at least in principle, most people, and not just a small elite, can access. And this will also the end of the student loans’ nightmare.

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