The Rise of e-Learning Programs vs Traditional Colleges

For quite some time, a reckoning has been coming for the colleges and universities of the world. Even before COVID-19 forced nearly all schools to transition with little notice to an online learning format, cracks had started to show in the general opinion of these venerable institutions that have long been regarded as a non-negotiable step in the pursuit of a successful career.

Between the years 1987 and 2016, the average cost of a four-year degree rose from $26,902 ($52,892 adjusted for inflation) to $104,480. The cost of an education essentially doubled over this time frame, which comes out to a 2.6% increase per year (on average). At first, 2.6% annually doesn’t sound too alarming. However, the average inflation-adjusted increase in wages during this period was only 0.3% per year. When you consider the latter percentage, it’s easy to see how student debt has become such an insurmountable problem for so many. There is little doubt that the return on investment of the average college education has been in a slow but steady decline over the 30 past years, and is now worse than it has ever been.

This sobering realization has caused many students to start questioning the value of a traditional four-year degree; relative to the expense. The fact that these institutions may be operating remotely for a while erodes the perceived value of the college experience even further. Thus, students are starting to consider other alternatives for obtaining the education and training required for their desired occupations.

Depending on the course of study and intended career path, there may or may not be viable options outside the traditional university setting. Fancy becoming a doctor? To university you go! Likewise, most science, engineering, and law careers still require a traditional degree in order to participate in those fields. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

That said, there are still quite a lot of fields in which one can arguably acquire every bit as much proficiency through e-Learning programs or boot camps as one can in live classes at a college. Most (but not all) of these fields are tech-centric. Today, e-Learning programs are available in the following fields:

  • Software development
  • Web development
  • Graphic design
  • UX / UI Design
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Business management
  • Project management
  • Medical coding

One positive outcome of traditional education losing its value is that it has given rise to the development of some truly stellar online learning programs. Many of these programs can take someone with minimal or no experience in the field of study to a level in which they are both proficient and very hireable over the course of just a few months. By devoting 100% focus to the subject matter, these “boot camps” and the like are designed to help someone reach that level of expertise in a field with much more efficiency than a traditional university. Even more impressively, they are able to provide an education at just a fraction of the cost of a mid-tier four-year university degree.

Are there valid concerns related to foregoing the credential of a college degree in favor of a more skills-based curriculum designed to qualify someone for the workforce more quickly? Absolutely. However, I do think that this concern is diminishing with time, and even with some potential employers. In particular, if a candidate for a given role can spend the time to develop a portfolio of work that proves proficiency in the desired field of employment, then in many cases, that alone may be enough to overcome any negative perception of the lack of a traditional degree.

We still aren’t sure as to how much the mass transition to online learning will impact the education world. Still, we believe that these trends will help to further democratize educational material, and make career-altering learning opportunities available to far more people at a far lower cost.

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