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College For Under $100 a Month?

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by Ben Cohen

The Washington Monthly looks at the growing popularity of online courses and what it might do to traditional face-to-face education:

All it
takes is for one generation of college students to see online courses
as no more or less legitimate than any other—and a whole lot cheaper in
the bargain—for the consensus of consumer taste to rapidly change. The
odds of this happening quickly are greatly enhanced by the endless
spiral of steep annual tuition hikes, which are forcing more students
to go deep into debt to pay for college while driving low-income
students out altogether. If Burck Smith doesn’t bring extremely cheap
college courses to the masses, somebody else will.
Which means the day is coming—sooner than many people think—when a
great deal of money is going to abruptly melt out of the higher
education system, just as it has in scores of other industries that
traffic in information that is now far cheaper and more easily
accessible than it has ever been before.

The article takes a neutral look at the phenomenon and concludes that while cheaper online education will destroy the valuable socialization process traditional colleges provide, it is a force to stay and big institutions must find ways to survive with them.

I don't think this is an argument for cost cutting measures at higher learning institutions. I'm not opposed to online learning, or private education, but the notion that all education must be profitable is a false premise. Education is an example of something so vital that the costs must be socialized - like healthcare, policing and other emergency services.

A country is only as productive as its people are educated, and if they are uneducated, they won't be particularly productive. The need for an arts based education is also vital if a country wants to retain its sense of identity, cultural vibrance and intellectual relevance. It may not make money in the short term to have political students debating the ins and outs of the Enlightenment period, but it might prevent the election of someone as dimwitted as George Bush. And think about the long term savings we would have made there.