The United States has a problem: rapidly rising student debt. It also has a solution: online education. The primary reason for spiraling student debt is the soaring costs of a college education at a physical college. Online education strips away all of those expenses except for the cost of the professor’s time and experience. It sounds perfect, an alignment of technology, social need and limited resources. So why do so many people believe that it is a deeply flawed solution?
Because it means massive swaths of higher education is about to change. Technology has disrupted many industries; now it’s about to do the same to higher ed.
But it is the students who need aid, and not the financial kind. They have too much of that as it is. The amount of student debt is large and getting larger. It will top $1.1 trillion this year; two-thirds of college students will graduate with debt. The average debt burden is $27,000, though that is skewed higher by a small percentage who owe a lot more. Forty percent of students owe less than $10,000. The amount of student debt has doubled since 2007, tripled since 2004, and many economists believe that the effect on the overall economy is negative.
While college graduates undoubtedly land in higher-paid jobs (earning almost twice those with only high school degrees), that may be offset by the burden of interest payments on student loans. Says Diane Swonk of Mesirow Financial: “Student debt has a dramatic impact on the ability to buy a house, and to buy the dishwashers and the lawnmowers and all the other purchases that stem from that … It has a ripple effect throughout the economy.”
As for the students, the price of the debt is often not worth the benefits. According to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 17 percent of students are in default, compared with 10 percent in 2004. And a large portion of those defaulting are over 30 years old, which means that the problems with student debt don’t disappear with age.