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Is Online Education the Next "Bubble"?

Apr 17, 2014 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

There’s been speculation that higher education is in the midst of a bubble. According to the theory, while college tuition costs rise, the actual return on investment for a college degree is decreasing dramatically. This threatens the stability of the student loan industry; as more and more students fail to find jobs with good enough paychecks to enable paying back their student loans, more will default on those loans. Essentially, they will have paid more for their education than it was worth in the marketplace—and eventually, the market will no longer become sustainable.

But some wonder whether the true bubble isn’t traditional education itself—but online education. If you read about online education in the news, you’ll find there’s a lot of excitement out there. Suddenly MOOC’s are available for online college credit; traditional schools are racing to adopt flipped classrooms and other forms of blended learning, and both educators and politicians are calling online education the last great hope for reducing tuition costs and making college accessible for more people.

As a result, there’s been plenty of investment in online learning on college campuses. And more and more students are paying tuition for online degrees. But can online education really live up to these expectations?

Why Online Education Might Be the Real “Education Bubble”

A recent article in Forbes highlights one reason online education may prove not to be as valuable in the marketplace as it’s hoped it will be.

Essentially, the idea is that a college degree isn’t valuable for the knowledge it demonstrates; it’s valuable for its cultural caché. A degree from a prestigious college gives you the opportunity to meet and network with the “right” potential future colleagues, spouses, and friends. It demonstrates your belonging in a social group that’s already been deemed desirable. Even with less prestigious schools, the value of your degree comes more with the people you meet, not the things you learn.

Online education may not prove to be valuable in the marketplace because it demonstrates only learning—not the cultural group you align with. An online degree does not bring with it the kind of cultural status that a traditional degree does—especially a traditional degree from a more prestigious school.

The idea here is that online education will drive the next bubble precisely because it makes college more accessible—which makes it less valuable. If anyone, anywhere can get a college degree—because online education makes it more affordable and accessible—then a college degree is no longer a valuable cultural indicator. Employers won’t get excited about hiring people with online degrees in the marketplace—and they’ll turn out to be worth less than the tuition paid for them.

Why Online Education Isn’t the Next Bubble

Then again, there are plenty of less prestigious colleges that offer very little cultural caché—but that do open doors for their graduates. While a high-status degree gives an edge in many industries, it’s not the case everywhere. And there’s also the concept of being overqualified. In some industries, a degree from Princeton or Harvard might indicate you’re too ambitious to stick around.

In addition, the idea that employers do not value the actual learning imparted in a degree program is worth questioning. Many colleges, including online and community colleges that specialize in educating nontraditional students, have partnered with businesses to refine their course materials and degree programs to bring them more in line with what companies need in their employees. Schools like Rio Salado College, California’s network of community colleges, the Alamo Colleges, and many more throughout the country have established business partnership programs.   

The Christiansen Institute rebuts the Forbes article by bringing up some interesting points: not only are many colleges—particularly those serving nontraditional students—active in developing business partnerships to tailor their programs to workforce demands; but that the chief regret of many graduates who struggle with landing a job after graduation isn’t that their degree wasn’t more prestigious, but that their major wasn’t more valuable.

There’s certainly something to be said for the idea that not every major is created equally. For instance, NPR recently reported that the difference in entry-level salaries between the country’s best- and worst-earning majors could be as much as $100,000. According to its data, the most lucrative college majors, including petroleum engineering and pharmacy sciences, earned six figures after graduation—while the lowest, including visual and performing arts, counseling, theology, and early childhood education—consistently struggled to break the $40,000 barrier.

The article also points out that alumni from the country’s most prestigious schools also struggle to land jobs in their field. There are plenty of anecdotal stories out there about people from Ivy League schools who are either unemployed or underemployed; a quick Google search pulls up stories on Gawker, The Washington Times, Salon, and the New York Times, among others. In addition, a Wall Street Journal study, suggests that recruiters are favoring state schools over Ivy League degrees these days, because of their focus on practical skills.

The truth is that no traditional or accredited online college degree can guarantee you a job—even the most high-paying degrees from the most elite universities. But elitism isn’t the only factor at work in the job market, and online degrees still significantly raise graduates’ chances of employment in comparison with a high school diploma alone. Whether or not there is a higher education bubble—or one in the sphere of online education only—is hard to say. But the value of an education is still fairly sound in most cases—even in the difficult job market.


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