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A Shift To Online Learning Should Pay Dividends For Students, But Will It Happen?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/David Jordan

During turbulent times, innovation tends to gain traction. The coronavirus pandemic has led to the adoption of new technologies and practices that would have taken much longer to make headway in ordinary times. You see it everywhere, from autonomous technology and robotics to the e-commerce explosion.

Higher education is not exempt from these powerful forces of change. Colleges and universities hastily shifted to online learning as students were evicted from campus, or asked not to return after spring break, after looming lockdowns forced the hand of administrators.

This is good news for budget-conscious students, since online learning should drastically lower operating costs and put the brakes on the out-of-control rise of college tuition. If it were not for COVID-19, institutions with large residential populations would lack any incentive to dismantle a profitable business model that rakes in billions of dollars each year.

 With the shift to virtual learning, there is no better time to give students cheaper options for getting a college education. Good news, right? Except that’s not what is happening.

 Harvard just announced its intent to move all classes online for the upcoming academic year. And the resulting cost savings for students? Zero. Tuition will remain the same at a staggering $50,000 per year.

 How can this be? Students will have no opportunity to interact in a classroom, sports are cancelled, and there will be little access to on-campus resources, faculty, and staff. In light of the pandemic, it is understandable why colleges might deprive their students of an in-person classroom experience and on-campus services and activities. 

But since it’s cheaper to take a class via Zoom at home with no required overhead costs, such as maintenance for campus facilities, the cost of that education should be significantly discounted. To do anything less is educational malpractice. It is especially outrageous when this money grab happens at colleges with endowments in the billions of dollars, like Harvard.

 Already, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed by students and their families who believe they are owed partial refunds for tuition and other costs, such as room and board, from a coronavirus-shortened spring semester. Students have every right to demand prorated tuition and fees due to the less-than-normal academic experience they received.

This begs the question: If degree-granting institutions can continue to function entirely online, then why is it so expensive to obtain a four-year college degree? As for what lies ahead, the market will determine future outcomes. Colleges that do not adapt to this “new normal” by lowering prices will suffer the consequences.

 No one should weep for the passing of bloated bureaucracies, Michelin-rated dining halls, “Taj Mahal” dormitory buildings, and a never-ending sea of overpaid assistant vice chancellors. The old educational model is the reason why the cost of college in America has far surpassed the growth in wages and the prices of other consumer goods.

 Even if the pandemic never happened, its days were numbered. The rapidly-approaching demographic “bomb” caused by a lower birth rate means there will be fewer students to feed a monstrously large academic complex. The way for colleges to compete is to entice students with lower prices. The post-pandemic shift to online learning has simply moved up the timetable.

 President Trump has added to the pressure by questioning the rationale of issuing visas to foreign students who can distance learn from their home countries. Since foreign students typically pay full tuition, Harvard and other schools adopting an online-only instruction model will lose a considerable source of income.

 All the more reason for schools to start adjusting to this new reality now, rather than fight these battles in court. The colleges that do will come out winners in the end, as will their students.

 Chandler Thornton is the chairman of the College Republican National Committee.

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