The Coming ‘Hybrid’ College Education

Hey, elephant. We can’t hear the professor. Please put yourself on mute.

Higher education is preparing itself for the change it knew was coming, but didn’t want to think about. The elephant in the room — the rise of the online and offline hybrid college education that isn’t “worth” the inflated tuition rates universities not only love to charge, but depend on — arrived seated on top of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 emptied out campuses across the country. College students went home, and figured out how to take their spring classes, already in progress, online. Thousands of professors scurried to figure out how to teach every subject, remotely. And universities did what they hate doing: Gave refunds.

As students “went to class” from their hometown bedrooms, many got reimbursed for the room and board they’d paid. They didn’t however, get a tuition refund, as schools stressed that learning was still going on. Classes were still continuing! Credits were still going to be awarded! Your diploma was still worth the same amount!

Hi, Elephant

From that, a large question formed. What and how much was that online learning worth, if the student wasn’t physically present at their university? Was it different? Better? Worse? And what if schools can’t “come back to campus” for the foreseeable future? What will they charge for the privilege of sharing the wifi with the younger siblings some more?

For students who are broken up into “in-state” and “out-of-state,” that question was decidedly not answered by their schools… and that was done on purpose. And it will continue to not be answered. It’s too expensive to answer.

Were those schools, the ones with the commercials we’ve sneered at for years, that offered “all online college education” degrees… actually us? And if they were, why were they so much cheaper?

Hybrid On- and Offline Learning

An article in New York Magazine’s Intelligencer addresses the panic higher education is now facing, right this minute. Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, and a speaker and author, spells out the coming changes to the university system, and the rise of the hybrid college education.

There’s a recognition that education — the value, the price, the product — has fundamentally shifted. The value of education has been substantially degraded. There’s the education certification and then there’s the experience part of college. The experience part of it is down to zero, and the education part has been dramatically reduced. 

Scott Galloway, The Coming Disruption, New York Magazine

RELATED: Coronavirus Cancellations: Is This the Time for a Gap Year?

Importantly, the on-campus experience shapes an individual’s life. And as someone who stresses the campus visit (look at our company’s name!) and how a campus “feels” to you, that feeling does indeed have a price. People want that traditional ivy-covered walls and cheering football stands experience, or the small liberal-arts campus experience, or the destination campus experience. And they are willing to pay for it. But just how much, is the question Galloway poses.

But will middle class America look to their “guts” like we tell students, when choosing an on-campus experience? Will their guts want to pay those prices?

Flattening the Tiers

Universities are still in a period of consensual hallucination with each saying, “We’re going to maintain these prices for what has become, overnight, a dramatically less compelling product offering.”

Scott Galloway, The Coming Disruption, New York Magazine

He predicts (and he’s got a good track record of predicting things) that the highest echelon of universities will become supported, financially, by large technology companies like Amazon and Google. If it’s good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for Harvard. That will, with the hybrid college education of on-campus and off-campus offerings, push for a larger top-tier enrollments. It doesn’t really cost that much more to add 100 more students to an online lecture class, but adding 100 more students in residence halls or a finding a giant lecture hall throws a college into chaos. And everyone wants the Harvard name on that diploma, right?

Middle-of-the-road universities will have to slash their budgets and offerings to stay open. They won’t have the budgets for large residence halls and food courts, especially if their “out-of-state” students stay home and attend Harvard online. And sadly, hundreds, if not thousands, of “tier three” schools will close. Higher education will become a luxury item for the rich who aren’t concerned about their wifi speeds.

Admissions: The Hardest Job Interview

Galloway calls out the most important team to a university, one that is near and dear to Smart College Visit:

The most value-added part of a university is not the professors; it’s the admissions department. They have done a fantastic job creating the most thorough and arduous job-interview process in modern history, between the testing, the anxiety, the review of your life up until that point, the references you need.

Scott Galloway, The Coming Disruption, New York Magazine

The stress involved with applying for college is unlike any other. And again, the unsaid reason is now being said: For what price, mentally and financially?

I’ve worked in college admissions marketing for years. There’s a truth all admissions professionals know. A student chooses their life’s path with the acceptance of an college offer, at 18 years old. Done. Where you graduate from informs every career choice you get for decades. And in many ways, it informs your personal life as well. You pay for the education and the diploma, but you get the peer group, contacts, and lifestyle, too. If that wasn’t true, we wouldn’t cheer for the “rose above their online degree/worked their way through a state school/became a millionaire on a community college education” heroes.

Galloway says incoming freshman should consider a gap year for this fall, just to mature a bit, and get some life experience. It would also be a good time to take one while colleges figure out what they are going to become. And save some money while you’re at it.

And buckle up, because we’re in for a bumpy ride.

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