Northeastern University Study Tells Us What We Already Know

Online classes are kicking butt.

empty classroomClassroom photo via Shutterstock

I’ve written a lot over the past few months about how inexpensive and large-scale online college programs, such as EdX, are dramatically changing the face of higher education, and how universities that focus on offering students practical skills, such as entrepreneurship, are the most important institutions in today’s job-starved world. Programs that are cheap, accessible, and functionally useful are the keys to surviving in the future. And if you’re not convinced, a recent Northeastern University study really hammers home that point.

Based on more than 1,000 interviews, the survey shows that while 70 percent of Americans believe higher education is “extremely” or “very important” to securing the elusive American Dream, 83 percent say that higher education is in desperate need of a shakeup. Enter programs such as the Harvard-MIT brainchild EdX, or similar massive online endeavors Coursera and Udacity, all of which offer free classes, after which students earn a certificate of mastery.

According to the survey, more than 60 percent of Americans ages 18 to 30 say online programs offer the same quality of education as traditional college and 68 percent believe online degrees will soon be just as respected as traditional four-year degrees. Yes, there are loads of people who argue that online classes don’t offer students a “well-rounded” college experience full of football games and keggers. But no one seems to care anymore—73 percent of Americans surveyed say that a “no-frills” approach to college minus things such as dorms and athletics is a perfectly good option.

And don’t forget the soaring cost of going to college, which increases and increases each year. More than 85 percent of survey-takers say that forking over big bucks to pay for college is a significant obstacle to earning a degree, making the free education offered by EdX way ahead of the curve.

Aside from cost, the other significant challenge facing old-school universities is how to prove their worth, which in today’s market means teaching skills that can be directly used to get a job, keep a job, or make ends meet. MIT focuses much of its energies on entrepreneurship, for example, and was recently named the top university in the world for its efforts. According to the Northeastern survey, entrepreneurship is increasingly becoming an American value as 69 percent of people believe that teaching students how to start a business is “extremely” important. And schools that encourage and allow students to work in the real world while taking classes get overwhelming support: 94 percent of young Americans say mixing job experience with classes better prepares them for the future.

Students “are expecting higher education to give them access to jobs,” Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun has said. “Their education must allow them to go out and compete in the world.”

This much we know. What remains to be seen, however, is how traditional universities will reshape themselves to meet the needs of students and whether they can adapt before programs like EdX take over for good.