Is an Online College Education Even Worth It?

In olden times, college students took classes in the ivy-covered halls of universities.

Male professors showed up for class wearing professorial togs: corduroy pants or rumpled khakis, a blue L.L. Bean oxford-cloth shirt, a knit tie, and a baggy sports coat with elbow patches. (At least that’s how I dressed.) Female professors had a different dress code, but I suspect it also came from the L.L. Bean catalog.

Then along came online college courses that students could take from home on their computers. How convenient! The for-profit schools were the first colleges to aggressively market online courses. The for-profits charged more than traditional universities–but you could attend class anytime you liked: in the middle of the night if that worked best for you.

At first, the traditional colleges turned up their noses at the online degree programs offered by the for-profits. An online degree from the University of Phoenix couldn’t be compared to a degree from a real university–Oklahoma State University, for example–the Princeton of the Prairies!

But then the admissions officers at the public universities asked themselves this question: Why don’t we cash in on the online education racket?

And that’s what they did. Many public colleges tacked on a “technology fee” to online courses even though those courses were far less expensive to offer than face-to-face instruction.

When people like me questioned the value of giving students college credit for asynchronous online courses, higher education defended the new technology. Online instruction is just as good as face-to-face, they stoutly maintained.

But then, the coronavirus crisis forced almost every American college to close in mid-semester. The schools shifted their instruction from the classroom to the home commuter because they had no other choice.

And–the best I can determine–not a single college discounted its tuition. Some of them argued that their online instruction was comparable to having the gasbag professor in the same room.

But the students didn’t buy it. At least 167 lawsuits have been filed by disappointed students who want their money back. Where did I get that number? From a law firm that keeps track of the litigation and posts the individual lawsuits on its website.

The case against Quinnipiac University in Connecticut is an interesting one to examine. Stonehill’s spring tuition in 2020 was almost 25 grand. That’s for one semester!

Students sued, and they made an interesting argument. Quinnipiac offered online courses in 2020, and tuition for online classes was only one-third the cost of face-to-face instruction.

In the students’ view, Quinnipiac owes them a tuition refund because, by the university’s own pricing structure, online courses are only one-third the cost of classes taken on campus.

Now here is my take on the tuition-refund litigation going on around the United States. In my opinion, the universities acted responsibly when they closed their campuses in March 2020 and shifted instruction to an online format.

Moreover, most private schools–the small liberal arts colleges, in particular–are cash-strapped even in the best of times. If a court forces them to give students wholesale tuition refunds, many of them will close. That would be unfortunate.

But let’s not continue the charade of saying that online college courses are comparable to being in the same room with a live professor. Students across America are telling their colleges that they got an inferior product in the 2020 spring semester, and they are right.

Wouldn’t you like to see your professor face to face?

References

Author, Class Action Litigation Related to COVID-19: Filed and Anticipated Cases, PIERCE ATWOOD (Nov. 9, 2020), https://www.pierceatwood.com/alerts/class-action-litigation-related-covid-19-filed-and-anticipated-cases (listing 167 cases as of March 9, 2021).

Metzner v. Quinnipiac Univ., No. 3:20-cv-00784 (KAD), 2021 WL 1146922 (D. Conn. March 25, 2021).

Leave a Comment