It’s Our Money and We Need It Now: How Technology Can Help Make College Cheaper and Easier to Complete than Ever


Here’s a topic that’s on every 20-something student’s mind in America: the climbing cost of attending college. Many of us stress over something that should not be a problem in our society, where getting an education to stay competitive in a globalized job market is essentially required.  And it’s the cost of everything having to do with college: from tuition and room and board to the myriad of fees students are required to pay for services they either don’t use or find inadequate (can you say Pitt Wi-Fi?).  President Obama’s promise to make two years of community college free for qualifying individuals is a start to addressing the issue.  However, I for one see an easy solution on the horizon that is becoming ever more popular and feasible with time.  Online college courses and other services are poised to make the cost of learning for many of us much more manageable, and the barriers to establishing digital classrooms in more pervasive settings are crumbling every day.

The Economist noted one university that is embracing digital technology within the classroom instead of fighting it.  Arizona State University (ASU) has been and continues to operate Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) in which students can take classes from anywhere, earn credit towards their degrees, and graduate on time with the same skills and knowledge learned in traditional classrooms.  The purpose of MOOC’s are to help make college cheaper and easier for students of all backgrounds by providing courses, homework, even quizzes and tests online for students, taught by faculty and fully accredited in nature, while not completely changing the college experience.  ASU uses both face-to-face and online instruction to help students; one reason college is so expensive is because only three-fifths of students graduate with a four-year degree in under six years, whether due to unpreparedness, lack of guidance, or some other inefficiency.  Both MOOC’s and technology in general at ASU are used to test students before they take a course and offer remedial online help before they take a course in the classroom.  Students also receive an online “academic advisor”, who sets up a plan for the student, tracks progress, provides advice, and can even identify if students are falling behind and put them in touch with a human counselor.  Furthermore, entire courses are even offered online, so professors do not have to start with the basics and can simply move on to more advanced material.  All of this enhances the student’s experience at ASU by providing the same quality education with the right resources for the future.

Moreover, ASU has actually seen tremendous improvement in its entire education process.  Undergraduate enrollments have doubled since 2002 to 82,000 students, degree costs are noticeably low at only $10,000 a year for in-state tuition (about $24,000 out-of-state), and graduation rates for a four-year degree within four years have risen from one-third to one-half.  This is impressive, especially considering that, on average, only 19% of full-time students will earn their 4 year degrees on time, and in-state tuition is only $9,139 on average in the country (at Pitt, tuition starts at over $16,000 in-state, making us the most expensive public university in the nation).  ASU’s statistics would be good for any university, particularly at a time when nearly all universities have increased expenses.  Everything from the new, high-tech buildings to the “armies of administrators” now found in every single university have increased expenses significantly – over 30% for private non-profit universities and almost 10% for public universities, since the early 70’s.  The odd thing is that almost none of these institutions have looked at ways to cut costs elsewhere without impacting the quality of the students’ education and almost all institutions pass the expenses on to the students to pay, a reason why “[e]ach new graduate in America is now about $40,000 in debt” according to the same Economist article from earlier.  So why is online course-work so under-utilized?  Well that’s changing too.

More and more, we are seeing universities of every caliber, from community colleges to Ivy League institutions, utilize technology to help students succeed.  We have seen such ideas as Georgia Tech’s online-only graduate degree in computer science, Columbia’s and Penn State’s online-only courses in many different subjects, and even the big daddy of them all, Harvard, offering a master’s course in public health that can be partially done online.  To localize the issue a little more, the University of Pittsburgh currently offers several different online courses in different subject areas ranging from nursing to business to education.  However, these courses are only offered in the graduate schools relating to the majors (i.e. there are currently no undergraduate online courses.)  With Pittsburgh becoming a hub for technology and with several other universities in the area, I would love to see Pitt embrace the online classroom revolution.  Pitt could band together with the likes of Carnegie Mellon or Duquesne and build a data base of courses that you could take online and pay Pitt’s tuition; we already have a cross-registration program at the other nine or so institutions in the area.  Why not transition that to the future and put it all online?  I can also see Pitt doing what ASU does and put many undergraduate introductory courses online, making them easily accessible, time-efficient, and cheaper to operate than those traditional classroom courses.  That way, Pitt can focus on providing better upper-level courses for students and cutting down on both administrative, logistical, and faculty costs.  Unfortunately, Pitt still charges the same tuition rates that one would encounter as an on-campus student.  I suppose the costs saved would be from not living in the decadent online tuition prices when the administration realizes that they are selling a more generic product in online dorms or paying exorbitant sums for the required crappy meal plan when on campus, but it is shameful that even with online courses, tuition rates can’t be reduced.  Hopefully, Pitt will drop its classrooms that other institutions have for a lot less.

No matter what, the issue that is clear from all of this is that technology is the way of the future for many colleges and universities, promising to reduce costs, increase revenues, and alleviate student stress with regards to accessing higher education.  Those institutions that don’t embrace this change could find themselves struggling to fill those brand new lecture halls they just built, losing students to the allure and price of college from home.

Samson Cassel Nucci

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