Opinion: Coronavirus has changed college forever

Mike Brown

For years now, we have heard about the cost of college being too high, the student loan debt bubble being too big, and a college degree not carrying the same return on investment that it once did. 

But, higher education institutions throughout the United States were still comfortable with their position and $50,000 per year tuition rates because there was never a good alternative. 

Changing the higher education system was always inevitable: As technology continues to enhance itself and impact every sector of the economy, higher education was one of the last bastions to resist the virtual movement. 

Expect to see online college transform into a viable competitor to the traditional four-year college education, Brown writes.

It likely would have taken at least another decade before we saw any major structural changes to how universities and colleges operate and where we send our young adults to further their education. However, the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything and has ushered in the “new normal” on an expedited schedule.

As a result, higher education in the U.S. will now see widespread changes coming soon, rather than in 10 to 20 years.

When college students across the nation were sent home in mid-March to finish off their spring semester in a virtual setting, higher education was stripped of its veneer and what really goes into earning a bachelor’s degree was made plain for everyone, especially parents. 

Over the last few months, the thought in countless American households where a child was earning credits on a Zoom conference call went something like this:

“This is what I’m paying $50,000 a year for? All my child needs to do to earn a degree is a couple of online classes and some take-home tests?”

Moving forward, expect to see online college transform into a viable competitor to the traditional four-year college education as it has now become experienced and accepted by many because of the coronavirus pandemic.

My recent study for LendEDU of 1,000 current high school seniors from the class of 2020 and current college students from the class of 2021 or later proved as much.

Among current high school seniors that have yet committed to any institution for next fall, 41% said they are considering online college, while 31% are not, and 28% are unsure or opted not to say. 

And among current college students, 28% are considering dropping out of their current college and enrolling in an online college for the fall 2020 semester, while 64% are not, and 9% are unsure or opted not to say. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic opening eyes to the idea of online college as a much cheaper alternative to traditional college, we will immediately see online colleges eating into the enrollment share that for so long has been dominated by higher education institutions. 

Further, we will likely begin to see even traditional colleges and universities offer an online learning route to prospective students that want to save money but still want to put “Stanford graduate” on their resume.

If that happens, any institution that creates an online alternative will have to drastically drop tuition for that option, in addition to likely partnering with a tech company like Microsoft to offer a robust, clean, and legitimate online education. 

Change was always on its way, the coronavirus just catalyzed it. 

Michael Brown is director of communications at LendEDU, an online marketplace for student loans based in Hoboken, New Jersey.