Not All Degrees Are Meant to Be Online

The University of California has banned fully-online undergraduate degrees. Good.

Last year, I wrote an article for the Martin Center about a new university in North Carolina. This institution, Queens College of Theology, was operating under a religious exemption that the N.C. General Assembly allows to provide space for religious education. In my article, I argued that, while the religious exemption clause in question was helpful, Queens should not be allowed to provide degrees in psychology or other subjects that fall outside the realm of theology, pastoral care, or religious studies.

Higher education has a value for our society. Maintaining that value requires some accreditation and bureaucratic oversight in order to protect against market shortcuts that would undermine college’s worth. Many “innovative” programs are shoddy online alternatives that poison the well for the thousands of college graduates who are awarded degrees each year. These subpar online offerings do not signify the kind of advanced study, social maturity, or professional development that residential degrees imply.

Today, there are more colleges awarding these short, nearly worthless degrees than there were a year ago, not to mention the countless certificate programs that one can get for a wasted weekend and a few thousand dollars. I am all for innovation in higher education, but programs that seek to game the system pose a harm to students and to their future employers.

Two months ago, the University of California System made a procedural move to address a loophole that allowed undergraduates to piece together an entirely online degree program. The move caused outrage online, with opponents calling it a step backwards. However, when one looks at what the new policy actually does, it becomes clear that the University of California System’s move represents a step forward, ensuring that programs that are meant to be residential remain so.

Many schools have made a point of subverting traditional requirements and providing substandard educations.UC’s move occurred when, in February of this year, the University of California Academic Senate approved Senate Regulations 610 and 630, thus instituting a minimum undergraduate residency requirement in order to be awarded a degree. The new policy requires that undergraduate degree candidates earn “a minimum of six units of course credits per quarter (or semester)” on campus “for three quarters (or two semesters).” To qualify as “on-campus,” courses must deliver 50 percent of their instruction “in person.” Importantly, the new policy allows a degree of flexibility in terms of hybrid coursework, which, for instance, would permit students to take courses residentially during an intensive week and complete the remainder of the work online.

Personally, I think this is a great move. Wholly online degrees are rightly seen as less valuable and less difficult to earn than traditional in-person degrees. Whether this always matches reality is unknowable, of course, but many schools have made a point of subverting traditional requirements and providing substandard educations, becoming in the process what have been appropriately called “degree mills.” Take, for instance, Queens College of Theology, where a student could theoretically go from high school to a Ph.D. in just under four years.

For many students, online or hybrid education is a huge benefit, permitting educational access to nontraditional learners, those in poverty, those living in remote areas, single parents, those with health concerns, and others. There is no shortage of options for such learners, and I am thankful for those programs that allow nontraditional students to receive quality educations.

In fact, I have taken online classes at both Duke and St. John’s. The work quality was not considerably different than what one might find in a traditional or hybrid course. However, the instructional quality was based largely on each professor’s ability to facilitate over Zoom. As a result, both the classroom culture and students’ ability to learn together were incredibly different than what one finds in traditional education. My experience of doing online classes at the master’s level taught me an important lesson: The classroom experience is invaluable.

As “social animals,” we are programmed to learn from each other, and we operate best relationally. It is absolutely possible to function individually, but that is far from the ideal. Not every person is able to get the full “college experience,” but education should provide some of the important foundational elements critical to living a good life, being a productive member of society, and building a capacity to lead.

Online programs must be intentional about creating space for real dialogue and community.In order to provide the kind of quality education and formation that an in-person degree promises, online programs must be intentional about creating space for real dialogue and community. They must provide a platform for interaction between faculty and students, as well as additional learning opportunities that permit students to develop the necessary skills and habits to succeed in the modern workplace. They must build the kind of culture that leads toward flourishing and holistic lifelong learning. Of course, all this is true of traditional residential programs, as well, but it is hard to dispute that online offerings get there less frequently.

I do not fault the UC System for requiring residency if it is critical to the educational goals professed by the system’s institutions and expected of UC by alumni, employers, parents, and society at large. There are far more stakeholders in higher education than just students. That is why accreditation and oversight, when done correctly, provide a valuable service not just to students but to those they will go on to serve and lead and who expect the degree to mean something.

Earning a degree from a university is difficult for a reason and not accessible to everyone. This should require us to ask questions about equity, access, and affordability. Nevertheless, the answer will not be simple, and it is not as easy as providing online options for every experience.

Good on the leadership of the University of California System for putting their foot down and not chasing the almighty dollar at the expense of their students, their reputation, and the California taxpayers who expect much from the programs they fund.

Chris West is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School. Previously, he spent 2018-19 as a Martin Center policy fellow.