Even before the coronavirus crisis hit, university education in the United States was in serious trouble.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment has fallen 11 percent since 2011 – down 2.6 million students. 

The decline has hit every sector, public and private, four-year and community college.

What’s more, 41 percent of students who start college fail to finish after six years, often because they can’t afford to continue.

To top it off, fully 70 percent of U.S. college students now incur student loan debt. 

The most recent figures are that some 44 million Americans now owe an estimated 1.6 trillion in student loan debt – an average of $39,000 per student for the class of 2018.  That’s more than all auto loan or credit card debt.

This is not true in most of the world. 

Only Americans tolerate what is, in effect, a systematic fleecing by the higher education establishment – which has raised costs at eight times that of U.S. wages over the past decades.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the cost to attend a four-year public university has risen by an astonishing 31 times since 1969, far outstripping the rate of inflation.

In contrast, university education throughout most of Europe is virtually free.

That’s partly 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. 

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 Berlin’s famous Humboldt University, no gourmet cafeterias at the University of Vienna.  The marble floors are cracked, the walls often need paint.  As a result, the cost to attend, even for foreign students, is less than $2,000 per year.

Coronavirus gives online education a big boost

Providentially, the explosion in online classes that the coronavirus crisis has forced upon America’s universities and colleges could be the catalyst for a long-needed reform of America’s over-indulged, over-priced higher education establishment.

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

I travel to Germany frequently on business, and, after five years of visits, wanted a thorough overview of German grammar and basic vocabulary.  It was an excellent course, difficult and thorough. 

My teacher prepared weekly videos that summarized the topics of that week.  I had about 15 to 20 separate assignments to complete every week, including video dialogues, along with quizzes and tests. 

I also interacted with my fellow students through Skype and telephone calls.  My professor also spoke to us regularly to see how well our conversation skills, practiced with fellow students, were progressing.

The course surprised me.  I have taken “in person” language classes most of my life – including four years of French in college and two years of Hebrew in Israel.  

Yet I was astonished to find that my online German course was as rigorous as, and in many ways more challenging than, the traditional language classes I have taken in which 40 students gather daily in classrooms. 

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. 

Are Traditional Colleges 28 Times Better?

Had I taken the same class at the private Catholic college my daughter currently attends, I would have paid $7,500 per semester – or 28 times more.

Of course, it’s true that some fields, such as engineering and medicine, require intensive, in-person instruction that simply cannot be replicated adequately online.  And there is no doubt that at least some traditional in-classroom teaching would be ideal.

But many of the courses that now constitute the “core curriculum” at colleges these days – often taught by exploited adjunct instructors no more qualified than their community college counterparts – could be acquired just as easily, and far more cheaply, with online classes.

And once students and parents learn how effective online teaching can be, the decades-old boondoggle that is higher education in America – the $60,000 a year in tuition at private liberal arts colleges — will come to a screeching halt. 

Thanks to the coronavirus crisis, millions of students and their parents are discovering that they now have a choice. 

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

This will be a good thing.  Studies show that, on average, a bachelor’s degree results in greater earning power over the course of a lifetime, roughly double that of someone with only a high school diploma. 

However, this advantage declines precipitously when coupled with massive student loan debt.  In fact, one recent poll found that fully 42 percent of college graduates now believe that college isn’t worth the often crippling debts incurred.

What’s more, a study by a Princeton economist found that, while graduating from college does make a difference in lifetime earnings, overpaying to attend an elite or private university likely does not. 

Despite what the recruiters at elite schools claim and hapless applicants believe, the study found no significant difference in the salaries of similar college graduates from elite schools versus four-year public universities.      

In the end, the coronavirus crisis will bequeath to us at least one unintended but salutary side effect: a rare opportunity to re-examine the costs and benefits of university education and to decide how students can best acquire such an education at an affordable price.

Thanks to the recent explosion in online classes, the reform of America’s over-priced university establishment may be beginning at last.

Robert J. Hutchinson writes about the intersection of politics and ideas. He is the author of What...