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0814, 18 Sep 20

The commoditization of a college education

Here is my column that ran in the Washington County Daily News earlier this week. Yes, I do use “college” and “university” interchangeably because the content applies to both but it gets wordy to keep saying “colleges and universities.” Enjoy!

Wisconsin’s colleges and universities have begun their fall semesters with a variety of plans for mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Students throughout the state and nation are living through an unpredictable whipsaw of experiences as colleges change the rules depending on the latest COVID-19 test numbers. These changing experiences are perhaps forever changing the fundamentals of the college experience and the value proposition of a college degree.

As a parent of three kids who are currently in college and one college graduate, the value of a college education is something that I have always considered undeniable. Both of my parents had college degrees and I was reared to believe that a college education is the golden ticket to the middle class. The mere possession of a sheepskin opens doors and careers that are otherwise unavailable.

While the actual education is the most important part of college, the campus experience is also a key part of shaping a person for the larger world. Being physically on a college campus is the first time away from home for many people and is where they learn to interact, socialize, work, collaborate, and play with people from vastly different backgrounds and experiences. It is also where one forms bonds and relationships that can help one get started and progress in their careers.

In more recent years, the value proposition of a college education has been eroding. Greased by easy money from the federal government, the cost to attend college has increased far faster than the ability of most people to pay for it. At the same time, the rise of lucrative careers in technology and the global commercial reach of the internet have made a college degree less important as a ticket to wealth. There will always be careers that will require a rigorous advanced education, but a bright kid can do very well for him or herself with a couple of key technical certifications or a catchy online business.

As the perceived worth of a college degree has been slowly declining for many people and the cost of that degree has been increasing, traditional colleges have been investing more and more into the campus experience. To visit some college campuses is to visit monuments to extravagance. Dormitories look like modern upscale apartments. The workout facilities are expansive and beautiful. Lecture halls and classrooms are equipped with the most sophisticated technology. The shared spaces are littered with study nooks, coffee shops, entertainment distractions, movie theaters, restaurants, and more.

All of those campus amenities cost money — a lot of money — and they are part of the reason for the ballooning cost of college. What happens when students are paying for all of those amenities but do not get to use them? That is what is happening for college students all over the state and nation as college administrators decide to lock down campuses, quarantine entire dorms, and move classes online.

Families and their college students might have been a bit more forgiving in the spring when colleges precipitously closed in the face of an unknown virus with scary predictions of millions of dead. Now we are entering a new phase. Colleges are demonstrating how they will react to any future health concern and creating uncertainty that students will ever be able to rely on having a true campus experience.

When a traditional college decides to close the campus and provide all of their education online, they are changing the value proposition of the education they are offering. The students are still paying for all of the amenities that sit empty and unused. The only thing that the students are getting for their money is the education provided through a computer screen as they sit alone in a dorm, apartment, or at home. If that is the case, then why are they paying so much? How is the education provided by UW-La Crosse or Marquette University any better than the education provided by tenured online universities like Capella University or the University of Phoenix? If universities are to be judged solely by the quality of the education they are providing through their online portals, then many traditional universities will struggle to differentiate themselves without being able to use their beautiful campuses to lure students.

The longer that universities forgo access to their campuses and deliver learning only online, the more students will shop around for their college experience. While a student may not be able to put a proper price on sitting on UW-Madison’s Memorial Union Terrace tapping out a research paper with an eclectic guitar player strumming nearby, that student can certainly put a price on sitting in their bedroom listening to a lecture on their computer.

The great commoditization of education happens when the intangibles of campus life are squeezed out and students are left to simply decide if taking Math 240 from Online University A is better or worse than that offered by Online University B. As traditional colleges underwrite the move to online education and close off their campuses, they are hastening their own decline.



0814, 18 September 2020


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