Robert Hutchinson: Coronavirus gives online education a big boost, shows high-priced colleges are a scam

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Last year I took a year-long course in German through an online program at a community college.

I travel to Germany on business quite a lot, and after five years of visits wanted a thorough understanding of German grammar and basic vocabulary. It was an astonishingly good course, difficult and thorough.

My teacher prepared weekly videos that went over the topics of that week. I had about 15 to 20 separate assignments to finish every week, including video dialogues, quizzes and tests. I also interacted with my fellow students through Skype and telephone calls. I was quizzed regularly by my professor to see how well my conversation practice with fellow students was progressing.


I have taken in-person language classes most of my life – including four years of French in college. I was astonished to find that my online German course was as good and in many ways much better than classes in which 40 students gather daily in traditional classrooms.

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I also saved a tremendous amount of time that would have come with driving 30 minutes to and from the college, finding parking, and sitting at a desk every day for 50 minutes.

The cost: $264 per semester.

Had I taken the same class at the private Catholic college where my daughter goes to school I would have paid $7,500 – or 28 times more.

As millions of students nationwide are now discovering after in-person classes were halted by the coronavirus pandemic, online classes aren’t that bad. In fact, they can actually be quite good.

My wife has taken many nursing administration classes online and finds them more demanding than many in-person courses.

Yet even though at least 50 percent of the teaching in the sciences and virtually all of it in the humanities can be effectively conducted with advanced online teaching technologies, colleges and universities have strongly resisted online teaching for decades.


Some schools have a handful of online courses here and there, but most don’t allow students to earn degrees entirely online.

The colleges claim that students need the in-person interactions with professors and fellow students that only traditional classes provide.

The truth is that college administrators know that once students and parents learn just how effective online teaching can be, the decades-old boondoggle that is higher education in America – the annual $60,000 in tuition at some private liberal arts colleges – will come to a screeching halt.

Parents especially will conclude that the billion-dollar campuses, luxury gyms, Olympic-size swimming pools, climbing walls, yoga classes, gourmet cafeterias and over-paid professorships are utterly unnecessary.

For 40 years, university administrators have paid for these and many other extraneous goodies by raising tuition and fees into the stratosphere and saddling an entire generation of young people with massive student loan debt – debt that cannot be expunged in bankruptcy proceedings and that some students carry with them to their graves.

This is not true in most of the world. Only Americans tolerate what is, in effect, a systematic fleecing by the higher education establishment.

University education throughout most of Europe is virtually free because European universities are stripped down, no-nonsense affairs with an emphasis on learning over lifestyle and a centuries-old commitment to meritocratic testing as the key to advancement. When they tried to institute modest tuition in Germany the early 2000s there were riots in the streets.

In February I toured a number of universities in Berlin and Vienna – schools where the likes of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein received their educations.

There are no climbing walls at Humboldt University, no gourmet cafeterias at the University of Vienna. The cost to attend, even for foreign students, is about 300 euros annually in fees.


In the end, the coronavirus pandemic will grant us at least one unintended but beneficial side effect: The college scam that has contributed to the financial ruin of America’s middle class over the past four decades is finally coming to an end.

Cal-State Fullerton just announced all of its classes in the fall will be conducted entirely online. Many other California schools are expected to follow suit. Soon, the pressure to offer more classes and even entire degrees online will be overwhelming.