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Sam Kissinger

Economic In-Tuition: Online school could be the future of higher education

Sam writes about why online classes are becoming more and more popular and could be the future of higher education.

Today, telling somebody that you have an online degree is like telling them you bought a bagel from Bagel & Deli in Oxford, OH — it’s good, but it’s not the “real” thing you will find at Bagel Street Deli in Athens. A traditional 4-year college is deemed the superior method of higher education today. But has the college tuition explosion of the recent decades diluted the traditional model, shifting value to alternative education models?

In a speech given by President Barack Obama, referencing the high price of college, he says, “That’s why I’m sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community colleges — to zero.” Making community colleges “free” would require huge amounts of costs for the government, a proposed $60 billion over 10 years. However, there may exist a more efficient way to provide a feasible, low-cost alternative to higher education. That alternative lies in online education. Online classes offer lower tuition fees in most cases, no set class schedule, no commute and many other advantages. For many people, it is a more flexible, easier and cheaper way to acquire a degree.

Take the University of the People (UoPeople), for example, which offers an alternative to traditional higher education. The UoPeople, founded by Shai Reshef in 2009, is an online institution, free of tuition, operates with a volunteer faculty and has a relatively small budget — about $1 million — in comparison to traditional universities. The online university has recently received full accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council, a significant achievement. The volunteer faculty consists of professors from elite institutions including NYU, Oxford University, Yale and others. The UoPeople has shown quick success, with 1,800 students enrolled from over 130 countries since its inception in 2009. However, it is the only existing free, degree-granting online education. Someone very influential would need to endorse such an institution in order for others to rise (cough cough Obama).

While some might think obtaining a degree the traditional way is preferable, online degrees are becoming much more prestigious today. A study conducted by Excelsior College showed that 83 percent of executives say they are as credible as one earned the traditional way. Completing an online degree displays a certain level of self-motivation, initiative and persistence. But just how good is a typical online education?

Trends for online enrollments have been reaching all-time highs. As of 2010, about 6.7 million students were enrolled in at least one online course. However, retaining students for online courses is becoming increasingly difficult. According to the U.S. World News and Report, the average retention rate among online colleges in 2010 was 55 percent. The retention rate for traditional public institutions was about 79 percent in 2012. Completing an online degree is only possible for dedicated students who value higher education as their highest priority.

It is difficult to make the case that learning in front of a computer screen is better than learning from professors in a classroom setting. But there is no “best way” for students to learn; it depends on the student, and the only way to know is through exposure to other methods. One could argue that, because some online classes require you to interact with your teacher, online classes are actually better for student-teacher interaction than in a classroom setting. An obvious argument would be that there is no student-to-student interaction in online classes, but in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Online classes often consist of students from different states and countries, so students have the ability to interact with people outside of just the classroom.

While the traditional 4-year college experience is unlike any other, tuition is increasing exponentially, and with more and more recent college graduates working jobs that don’t require a degree, it’s becoming a risky investment. Online degrees allow for devoted students to simultaneously work full-time and obtain a degree. If a higher-education revolution is in order, online education might lead the way. There is still a lot of work to be done for online colleges to become successful but with the University of the People setting a new standard, the online takeover just might be possible.

Going back to Obama’s theory on community colleges, the overall retention rate among 2-year institutions in 2012 was 59 percent — not much better than the 55 percent for online universities. With UoPeople already proving success with free tuition, Obama’s fascination with community colleges might not make much economic sense. He seems to be forgetting an obvious, potentially more efficient solution.

Sam Kissinger is a junior studying economics at Ohio University, a member of the OU Economics Society, a member of Alpha Phi Omega and a research assistant at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Columns will be written by a different CCAP student from Ohio University each week. Email Sam at

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