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In a Time of Instability, Are Online Colleges a Safer Bet?

In a Time of Instability, Are Online Colleges a Safer Bet?

The cynics appear to have been right: a large number of traditional colleges announced they would conduct in-person classes, only to cancel at the last minute, or stayed open for a few days – weeks at most – before returning to an online format.

This is bad for many reasons, but the least remarked upon may be just how much worse this experience is for students of limited means.

It’s one thing to put down non-refundable money on moving and living expenses when you’ve got a healthy savings account or family wealth. It’s quite another to put that money down, and spend all the time needed to prep for in-person college, when you’re already struggling to get by and just barely managing to invest in your future.

As a recent article in Vox noted, uncertainty around in-person college is inconvenient for students of means, but devastating to students struggling to get out of poverty.  As author Terry Nguyen notes:

The decision to plow ahead with reopening, as Faye noted, disproportionately affects low-income students, especially those who count on schools for work-study jobs, food, housing, and health care needs. The unavoidable closures in March had already displaced thousands of students, some of whom relied on mutual aid networks and the generosity of strangers and alumni to afford their move home or a place to stay. The discordant nature of how colleges are moving online have left the most economically marginalized students with minimal resources, forced to make frantic changes to their lives at the directive of their institutions.

Several students told me that had their colleges announced the shift to online learning earlier, they could’ve saved thousands of dollars in moving costs. Ava Mortier, a freshman at Barnard, said her family booked a $2,300 Airbnb where they could quarantine after flying in from a small town in Northern California. “The decision came out five days before my flight, which was much past Airbnb’s refund date,” Mortier wrote in a text message. “When the decision was announced, some first-year students I know were on planes to New York or had already begun quarantining in the city.”

There will never be a simple answer to the question of whether online college is better than or as good as traditional college, because the answer is always:  “At what?  And for whom?”  Different subjects and different populations have different needs.

But it is very clear that in this time of great instability, online education has one definite advantage over traditional colleges: you can plan ahead for it.  Institutions that committed early to online education for the next year had far better success planning their classes out, and students who committed to online education had a clear sense of what they were getting into months in advance.

This distinction may not be so important for students with a lot of resources to fall back on.  But for students struggling at the margins it can make a huge difference in their quality of life, or even be a matter of life and death.