Colin: Dartmouth 2.0

Increased online degree offerings could help relieve financial pressures on both students and universities.

by Sarah Colin | 8/21/20 2:00am

While this past spring term was riddled with technical difficulties and left something to be desired, the transition to online learning could have gone much worse. With more time to organize schedules and to technically equip classrooms and train professors, online classes and degrees could become a potential solution to America’s college tuition crisis. Indeed, by forcing an abrupt transition to remote learning, the COVID-19 pandemic expedited the development of a market for quality online degrees. As families suffer from rising college tuition costs and colleges struggle to maintain long-term financial viability in the wake of the pandemic, increased online degree programs present an economic opportunity for both sides of the equation.

Over the past 40 years, college tuition has increased over 213 percent at public schools and 129 percent at private schools, adjusting for inflation. This rate is increasing about eight times faster than the growth in median income over this same period and is a result of more students vying for a limited number of degrees. This upward trend is projected to continue into future decades, and with record unemployment levels and an economy still suffering the effects of the pandemic, more families than ever will be unable to cut the check for a college education.

Students are not the only ones facing financial problems. Dartmouth is expecting a $100 million loss between now and next July due to the cancelation of in-person classes and activities, and other universities are in the same boat. Given that Dartmouth has already resorted to cutting some of its varsity athletic teams, it seems that the administration is desperate to minimize losses. As such, Dartmouth should consider whether it could profit from online degrees.

Dartmouth has an absurdly low acceptance rate to maintain the benefits of being a small college, such as small student-to-professor ratios and a close-knit campus community, as well as the prestige of an Ivy League degree. This means that there are many qualified applicants whom the College cannot accept each year. The administration made this clear in its decision to cut five varsity sports teams so that Dartmouth can accept more applicants outside of athletic recruiting. But what if this changed?

Let’s say Dartmouth conducted admissions per usual, but then accepted the next 1,000 most eligible applicants to receive online degrees for a reduced tuition. This would allow greater access to Ivy League educations, particularly for students who cannot afford a private university even with generous financial aid packages. It also presents economic opportunity for Dartmouth, as the College could still charge over half of full tuition for an online degree. Given the financial pressures on both colleges and families in the wake of the pandemic, an online degree program could benefit both parties.

Students have already begun to embrace the financial benefits of online school. Before the pandemic, one-third of college students were enrolled in online degree programs, while another third would take at least one online class over their four years. This past spring and summer, there were already a number of Dartmouth students who chose to take transfer terms at cheaper institutions such as community colleges. If this trend continues, failure to offer online options could actually have a negative impact on Dartmouth’s revenue.  

There are obviously many risks involved in taking the plunge into the world of online education. First of all, offering online school could compromise the prestige of a Dartmouth degree. Nonetheless, the online learners would still participate in the highly competitive admissions process along with everyone else. If Dartmouth accepted around 500 to 1000 online students per year, the overall acceptance rate would still remain around 10 percent. Also, online degrees could be denoted with a different title than the in-person experience, leaving it up to graduate schools and employers to decide what value the Dartmouth online experience holds (similar to weighing the value of a two-year versus four-year undergraduate experience).

Adding online learning in addition to in-person classes also raises questions about what this transition would look like for professors. They would likely have to be compensated more for their additional work, but recorded lectures and online curriculums can easily be reused so that their permanent workload would not be significantly increased.

It is also worth considering whether an online degree can even count as a true Dartmouth experience. While Trips, big weekend traditions and extracurricular groups help build the community and friendships that are the hallmarks of our time at Dartmouth, they are not absolutely essential to the academic experience. An online degree holds less overall value, but it still incorporates Dartmouth’s intellectual community, like the College’s professors, classes and academic resources, at a reduced cost. There are some students who may even prefer an online degree to an on-campus experience after considering academic interests, social comfort and financial constraints. For instance, online degree programs could make it easier for students to simultaneously hold jobs to help pay off student loan debt — students would have more free time without extracurriculars and other components of campus life and would have a broader selection of jobs to choose from.

The success of MIT’s open courseware program also bodes well for the future of prestigious universities offering online classes or degrees. Since 2002, almost every MIT course has been posted online for public use (without offering a degree). This has neither tarnished MIT’s reputation nor has it led to a decrease in on-campus enrollment. 

At the end of the day, online degrees may not be in the cards for Dartmouth and its peer institutions. Such a program could lead to a dangerous split along socioeconomic lines and could weaken the broader Dartmouth community by taking away some shared aspects of the Dartmouth on-campus experience. Nonetheless, the future of college in America is online degrees. With robots and automation projected to put people out of manual labor jobs in the coming decades, the value of a college degree will be greater than ever. More people will want to attend college, and demand will drive tuition costs up even further. If we continue on our current path, student loan debt will exceed $3 trillion in the next decade. This is clearly problematic for both the debtors and the lenders, but it will also slow the economy by inhibiting future sales of houses, cars and other luxuries. Given the broader effects of these trends in America’s higher education system, online degrees seem to be a viable way of making education more accessible without compromising the current in-person university experience.