The struggle for affordable education is on the forefront of many American’s minds. It is a common subject of politicians in this year’s election, and it is the ever-growing concern for the millennial generation.

The question constantly asked is: “How can we fix the current state of higher education?”

Accredited college tuition rises at 3% or more every year, yet students are still struggling to find jobs above the minimum wage after completing their degree, if they complete it at all. The cycle seems to be never-ending, and many new students are struggling to see the benefit of continuing education.

However, there may be a solution brewing with the current rise of accredited online schooling.

Already, esteemed universities have begun to offer free massive open online classrooms (MOOCs) to the general public. And very recently, some universities have begun to offer completely free degree programs that are no doubt influenced by their successful online classes.

Could online school be the secret to a complete education overhaul? Or is it simply another way for universities of all sorts to cash in on a new demographic: the distance learner?

By looking at the successes and recent failures of online universities across our nation, I believe we can predict the potential fall of the for-profit school, and the rise of low-cost or free education through accredited online universities.

A Different Classroom

Online education has already changed the way many campuses operate. Jay Halfond is the previous associate dean of Boston University’s College of Business Administration and a current professor with their online Administrative Science program. He is all too familiar with the changing landscape of higher education and often warns fellow professors and students of ignoring the important differences between online and ‘brick and mortar’ classrooms:

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“As with any educational opportunity, no two are the same, no generalizations about their comparability to the traditional classroom are valid, and no easy way exists for the prospective student to differentiate quality. And, despite media hyperbole, the intrusion of distance learning is likely to be more evolutionary than revolutionary, more nuanced than disruptive, and more to the overall benefit of access to learning in the long run. Especially for adult learners, online courses, when designed and delivered well, are an important means to intersperse their educational pursuit with other aspects of their daily lives.”

The most important aspect of new growth in online learning isn’t for the fresh-out-of-highschool student, but for the student who already has an adult life in the background. In this way, students of all ages and types are joining college and seeking out higher education. Work life, family, and transportation are no longer massive obstacles for those that want to achieve a college degree. For millennials, this means continuing education while gaining valuable work and life experiences, something that is often lacking in the traditional college experience.

How does this translate within the realm of education reform?

By opening up classes to a wider (and more international) audience, schools are beginning to spread their reach far beyond their state. As Halfond puts it in another interview: “Distance learning is also likely to impact the health of some of America’s academic institutions. Most higher education is local, and likely to remain so. […] But the age of regional monopolies is rapidly closing. We are all in each other’s territory now.”

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This means schools need to compete to stay afloat. In our current world of inflated tuition costs and skyrocketing student debt, schools that offer quality education and keep it affordable are more likely to succeed in the online revolution.

Those that can’t offer that same open format will most likely fail.

The Crash of the For-Profit School

Very recently the news arrived that ITT Tech, an infamous national for-profit (and non accredited) technical college, would be closing all of its campuses. This news is likely upsetting to all alumni and current students, but is promising news for the end of for-profit universities.

When online education was first being offered, schools like ITT Tech and University of Phoenix capitalized on the older, busy-with-life student who is now benefitting from the online revolution. They noticed this demographic and offered them an alternative, but at a fraction of the quality.

Now as more colleges and universities join the fray of online schooling, these students have options that meet their needs and don’t take advantage of their time and money. Everything from a broad undergraduate education, to more niche-specific fields of study is now at the disposal for distance learners; and often with the same tenured professors that they might find on campus.

Unlike the for-profit non-accredited schools that spearheaded the online college market, private schools that offer niche markets are still succeeding within the online realm.

A nursing school in Boston, Regis College, was on the verge of filing for bankruptcy in 2001, but managed to save itself by expanding its graduate programs and opening up its online nursing program. The school, which is a private Catholic school, has now managed to revamp its campus, and is continuing its ongoing international collaboration with nurses in Haiti; a very worthy cause to stay afloat in the college market.

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Although these private schools might not be lowering the price tag of the educations offered, it proposes an alternative for those that can afford the option. This also leaves state colleges the option to compete and market to a different audience altogether: that of the middle to lower economic class student.

Online school may have begun with non-accredited for profit schools, often maligned MOOC’s, and recorded video lectures, but it has evolved into a true alternative to the traditional classroom. Its benefits go beyond the potential for continued higher education outside of the ball-and-chain of the classroom, and could provide a solution to the competitive pricing of affordable college.

By itself, accredited online education may not be the sole answer to education reform, but it’s certainly part of the solution.