It looks like the droning question about calculating the cost and value of an undergraduate degree is beginning to result in lower applications and enrolments in undergraduate degree programs. This is particularly frustrating for someone like me who has been screaming all along: money is not the point of an undergraduate degree.

Colleges and universities were not developed to create increase the income potential of its students. In fact, personal finance is one of the last priorities of most colleges. I remember wishing, when I was a student, that my college still offered a basic personal finance course elective for all students, not just business majors. But, despite the priorities of colleges in years past where young people were challenges to become well-rounded citizens schooled in the humanities, sciences, and critical thinking, our public conversation has focused on only the small money of individual students and their families.

The point of an eduction is to change the way one reads, thinks, and communicates with others. Sure, there are technical skills that are taught and mastered as part of the process. But primarily an undergraduate degree is about broadening horizons and dedicating several years of one’s life to learning about our history, languages, conflicts, and values. If you want to learn a trade, that’s great. There are strong trade schools that specialize in training students for particular jobs and careers. But it doesn’t make sense to scrutinize the outcomes of a four-year undergraduate degree with the same criteria as a trade-school certification. The fact that many undergraduate schools have programs in nursing, education, engineering, and computer science reveals the value these industries place on the quality of education they want in their employees. They want future workers to be certified in their trade, but also to be well-rounded and educated in many other areas of life.

I’ve collected here several links to recent (and not so recent in the case of the Pew Research report) articles concerning online education and the value of higher education. Many schools see online education as a way to deliver more education/goods to more students/consumers at a reduced cost. In the case of MOOCs, the cost per student is probably particularly low. Large online courses are a modern and high-tech way for some schools to get away with cost-reduction measures, in the same way that some schools are increasing class sizes. Only the bean counters would think 200 students in a third-year course would yield quality results.

1. Nathan Heller, The New Yorker, Laptop U: Is College Moving Online (published May 20, 2013)

This extended exploration of online education looks at several models of online courses.


This author challenges us to not trust the profit-driven corporations who are trying to make a few bucks off our anxieties about how to “modernize” education.