Guest Column: Online degrees are the future of higher education

As a teacher at a community college, I welcome the transformation in higher education that online technology brings.

For my courses, I post handouts, useful links, research supplements and study guides online. I no longer accept printed papers, only document files uploaded to our course site. And I no longer administer tests in the classroom, but create them online, allowing students a larger window in which to complete them.

Maximizing the online possibilities in my classroom optimizes my teaching in multiple ways.

The cost of the reading material has evaporated in the ether. Students are also less likely to make excuses for missed work after an absence, since materials are usually posted the same day we meet. I have more time in class to spend teaching. And online discussion boards help continue the conversation long after they file out of class.

My classroom is a microcosm of what’s possible. Places like Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Harvard, UCLA-Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are embarking on ambitious and transformative online education projects. The latter three launched EdX, a nonprofit that offers hundreds of courses free of charge online.

Already, more than 10 percent of all college students are enrolled in fully online degree programs, according to the Department of Education. The next crucial step is to move toward offering entirely free online degrees. We don’t have much of an alternative.

Only 40 percent of adults in the United States between the ages of 25 and 34 percent had earned an associate, bachelor’s or graduate degree in 2010, as reported by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. The U.S. ranked 16th in the number of young adults with college degrees, trailing countries like Russia, Canada and Japan.

As tuition keeps going up faster than inflation, and federal financial aid is not enough to assist every college-ready student, we’re likely to fall further and further behind.

Other superpowers are already ahead of us.

China’s government gives grants to universities to put undergraduate teaching materials online. The Ministry of Education gives professors incentives to post course materials online.

India keeps its focus on students, asking its most rigorous technology universities to post videos of lectures so millions of students across the country can access them.

President Obama has proposed increasing the amount of campus-based financial aid to $10 billion annually. That’s good news for students who qualify.

But millions more will accrue debt in the form of student loans. It would better serve students, and the country, to make a multi-billion dollar investment in offering entirely free online degrees through existing programs.

By offering free online degrees, colleges here could open wide the doors of higher education. In doing so, they would help the United States become truly competitive in the international race for talent.