In years past, nothing struck fear in the entering college freshman's like the possibility of anonymity. Perceptions of the university as an imposing, impersonal institution hardened into stereotypes. Veteran students would regale new ones with stories of unfriendly bureaucrats, crowded lecture halls, and remote professors. These depictions made you think that in all the human learning supposedly being advanced and imparted something ... well ... human got lost. One of the most abiding anxieties attending university life is the fear of being "just a number."
Recently, however, this fear has been eclipsed by a fear of another sort, which also involves numbers: namely, those being added to the price of higher-education. As this cost mounts, many prospective and returning students have shuffled their priorities. Small classes and intimate instructor-student ratios may not continue too highly if they come at ever-higher premiums. Indeed, the numbers tell a story far scarier than that of mean professors or uncaring administrators. CollegeBoard.org reveals some startling facts concerning trends in tuition prices over the last decade (pdf). To wit:
Confronted with such skyrocketing costs, students -- particularly those dubbed "nontraditional" -- have been desperately searching for ways to reduce the financial burden of earning higher degrees, and they have discovered one reliable way to do so: eliminating the necessity for their physical presence on campus. Many fees added to the bursar's bill have to do with the physical resources at students' disposal on campus. If you don't set foot on campus, you don't need the resources. Nontraditional students -- many of whom are older, have jobs and families, and hectic, variable schedules -- find the freedom that distance learning provides a welcome relief from the residential-institution regimen's demands on their time and person.
The December 5, 2010 edition of The Chicago Sun-Times reports on one Windy City resident, a nontraditional, returning student named Danny Ashcom. Already a holder of a master's degree in psychology, which he earned the old-fashioned way by coursework at a brick and mortar institution, Ashcom recently enrolled in an online master's program for computer science. When asked why he opted for online over traditional instruction for this latest master's, Ashcom replied,"'Doing psychology I wouldn't have thought about an online degree because you need to be face-to-face with people.... In computer science, there is no real price to pay for doing it on your own. You can do it quickly and efficiently.'"
Quickness and efficiency once again show their durability as principles for keeping costs down, only this time it's not manufacturers or office managers but university students espousing them. In this Ashcom is not alone. "Online classes and degree programs have exploded in size and popularity in the last decade, led primarily by public universities who see the programs as a way to reach non-traditional students," the Sun-Times story continues. "Traditional students are also finding more online options mixed in with lectures and seminars." With traditional students, the overwhelming majority of any student body, also demanding the quickness and efficiency of online course options, campus residence will with time cease to be as much of a factor in student costs (meaning for many, how much money to borrow) as it is currently.
Higher-education expert Jeff Seaman sees the writing on the wall. As the virtues of distance learning become more generally known, the perception that degrees earned in this manner somehow mean less than degrees earned the traditional way will begin to fade. Indeed, it already is. "'[Distance learning] can be at least as good as face-to-face,'" the Sun-Times quotes Seaman as saying."'The stigma was not within the higher ed community.... There's always been a perception issue in the general public side more so than in higher education.'"
The optimistic attitude that U.S. colleges and university have taken toward online learning means they're well positioned to lead the public to adopt the same. This can only help to ease the minds of Americans eager to retrain and hone their skill sets in order to meet the demands of a 21st century job market, with all its shifts, changes, upheavals, and downtime. These bring fear enough. Galloping tuition rates ought not compound it.