NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Can Online Learning Reproduce the Full College Experience?

March 21, 2012

Skyrocketing costs for traditional colleges have created a substantial opportunity for online course providers.  Through lower costs and a streamlined business model, online colleges can undercut brick-and-mortar institutions while ostensibly providing a comparable education, says Karen McKeown, a graduate fellow with the Heritage Foundation.

Detractors have responded to this claim, however, by arguing that online colleges fail to provide a comprehensive college experience and are therefore of little threat to standard universities and colleges.  Yet, an examination of the college experience in its academic, social and extracurricular elements demonstrates that online providers are on par in each area.

  • According to a recent Pew Research report, 47 percent of the public believes that the purpose of higher education is to "acquire specific skills and knowledge that can be used in the workplace."
  • A meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 found that students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.
  • The 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement found that, compared with their counterparts in traditional classrooms, online students were more likely to "[v]ery often participate in course activities that challenged them intellectually."

This on-par performance was not isolated to the intellectual sphere, but was also present in the traditional social components of college.

  • Of college graduates, two-thirds report that it helped them "grow and mature as a person."
  • Yet some components of traditional college undermine this growth through increased feelings of social isolation, peer pressure, financial concerns and difficulty moving away from home.
  • Online courses allow for a controlled educational experience whereby students can avoid the unnecessary stressors of a traditional on-campus experience.
  • Furthermore, with 58.5 percent of traditional college students opting to live at home, physical independence is no longer an integral component of the traditional college experience.

Finally, online education is able to harness the power of a wide variety of extracurricular activities that make it comparable to traditional colleges.

  • Many activities such as a school newspaper or a chess club are easily reproduced online.
  • Furthermore, online colleges can provide credits for outside-the-classroom experiences.
  • Finally, online students have comparable access to study-abroad options, thereby providing a seemingly essential opportunity for extracurricular involvement.

Source: Karen McKeown, "Can Online Learning Reproduce the Full College Experience?" Heritage Foundation, March 13, 2012.

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