How Online Learning Will Save Tomorrow’s College Students


The consumer price index—the measure of the average change of the cost of goods and services over time—has risen 115 percent since 1985. During those same 30 years, the price of an average college education has significantly outpaced that inflation, rising nearly 500 percent.

As college becomes less affordable, some students are looking toward unconventional learning methods to get the education they need to succeed in today’s difficult job market. After all, college graduates earn up to $17,500 more each year compared to their degreeless peers.

Still, it’s worth noting that the average member of the Class of 2014 graduated with $33,000 worth of debt—more than double the bill the same student would have been stuck with 20 years earlier.

According to CollegeBoard, the average costs of tuition, fees, room and board for 2014-2015 are as follows:

  • Public four-year college (in-state): $18,943, climbing 3 percent from the year prior
  • Public four-year college (out-of-state): $32,762, climbing 3.3 percent from the year prior
  • Private nonprofit four-year college: $42,419, climbing 3.6 percent from the year prior
  • For-profit institution: $15,230, climbing 1.3 percent from the year prior (no room and board)

Advanced_editing_workshop_at_Wikipedia_in_Higher_Education_Summit,_2011-07-09Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of money, and the combination of students graduating with significant debt having a hard time finding work—or at least finding full-time work—has led many to reconsider their options when it comes to education.

The Rise of the Digital School

If you glance at the above list again, you’ll notice that the for-profit colleges—think University of Phoenix, DeVry University and Kaplan University—are considerably cheaper than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. What’s more, the costs for these kinds of schools are increasing, but at a noticeably slower rate than those of traditional educational institutions.

While the lower price tags might be attractive to some students, the buyer should still beware: Recent research says that graduates of for-profit universities are less likely to land jobs than their peers who have diplomas from legit colleges. And even if they do land a gig, chances are they’ll get paid less.

Facing a difficult job market with few promises of employment but still understanding the intangible value of education, many students are pursuing their studies via massive open online courses (MOOCs)—like those hosted on Udacity, Coursera and edX, and other free, open education platforms.

According to a recent study, more than 6.7 million students are enrolled in these kinds of free learning programs. Thanks to the evolution of technology, we’re able to do things like watch the television programs we want on whichever devices we want whenever we want. So why shouldn’t we be able to learn from the comfort of our homes at times that are most convenient?

“Learning is no longer limited to four walls – learning can happen anywhere – and it is already happening everywhere, every day,” says Todd Hitchcock, a senior vice president at Pearson Learning Solutions. “The growth of online learning underscores this need for quality, flexible education programs that meet the demands of our 21st century workforce.”

MOOCs are even finding a home in traditional educational institutions. In recent years, faculty at Stanford University, MIT, Harvard, the University of Chicago and the State University of New York—among others—have embraced the concept of free online education.

IMAG2227-1The rise of these kinds of programs—which represent the marriage of the open source philosophy and education—has given birth to a slew of other kinds of free online learning platforms. If you’ve ever been curious about writing code, for example, you can head on over to places like Codecademy or Udemy and learn how to program without spending a dime.

So students now have two choices: They can either spend exorbitant amounts of money on a traditional college diploma—likely graduating with a lot of debt and no guarantee of immediate employment—or they can learn the same skills without opening their wallets.

The Future of Education

For generations, a traditional four-year college degree was something to be envied. It was a rite of passage, like the graduating student who received it was finally ready to become part of the real world.

But history has repeatedly proven that college is not a prerequisite to success. Here are some people who never graduated college: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner, Mark Zuckerberg, Abraham Lincoln.

Is it that hard to imagine a scenario where smart hiring folk look at people who have paid for four-year degrees as candidates who’ve taken the traditional path—the path that has left many debt-ridden underemployed grads living in their parents’ basements—and have perhaps acted foolishly?

At the end of the day, what’s more important: The ability to do, or a piece of paper that shows how expensive your education was?

Just ask Tommy Nicholas, a programmer who transformed his career, for free, thanks to Codecademy. Believe it or not, some businesses are embracing unconventional hiring methods: Instead of going through a traditional interviewing process, they’re hiring people depending on the results of skilled-based tests.

Education is an essential ingredient in the recipe of being able to consistently deliver on projects and meet goals. That said, it might be time to change the perception of the implied merits of traditional higher education and remove the stigma associated with those who learn through unconventional methods.

The good news is that it appears the tide may be turning.

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