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Eisgruber discusses online courses, higher education

20140417_EisgruberLastLecture_SewheatHaile_8221The traditional brick-and-mortar college experience is still valuable because of the broad array of interactions it allows students to have with faculty members, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said Thursday in a lecture that was a part of the “Last Lecture” series.

Eisgruber explained that students may be more motivated to learn when immersed in an environment that offers opportunities to engage with the people who teach and grade them. He noted that a study conducted by Williams College, a top liberal arts institution, found that among Williams’ most effective practices were offering opportunities for independent research, intensive reading and writing experiences and anything that increases student and faculty interaction even if the interaction did not relate to academics.

Online courses might not be able to reproduce the same experience, Eisgruber said. He noted that online course programs currently have on average only a 3 percent completion rate, adding that they could be improved, for example, by becoming an intensive “three-day” format that is more realistic for people who aren’t living on a college campus than following a course for an entire semester. He added that after talking to University donors he found that excitement about online courses has diminished. He said, however, that this decrease in enthusiasm may simply reflect a pause in innovation.

Graduating seniors should become advocates for higher education in general and public universities in particular, Eisgruber said. He explained that the problems facing public universities are the result of a society that is currently unwilling to recognize the need to invest in higher education.

“Our public universities are ranked among the world’s best universities,” Eisgruber said. “That’s at risk right now.”

Eisgruber explained that the problems higher education face include elimination of state subsidies to universities; an overreliance on adjunct professors, who may be overworked and unable to interact as thoroughly with students as full professors can; and for-profit colleges’ receiving a disproportionate share of federal funds while spending more on marketing than student instruction. However, allegations of large student debt burdens and diminishing returns on investment of higher education are not supported by data, Eisgruber said.

“If you look at the leading research universities in the country — so places like the University of Iowa, UCLA, Princeton — it’s 50 percent graduating debt-free,” Eisgruber noted. “The median debt level for those who have debt: $13,000.” He added that the annual return on investment of a bachelor’s degree is 15.2 percent and gets compounded annually.

A college degree will be “the best investment you will make in your lifetime,” Eisgruber said.

Eisgruber said that the average student costs the University $80,000–$120,000 a year and noted that he has been asked how such a large investment is justifiable.

“I strongly believe, to the core of this University, that that kind of investment in all of you does matter,” Eisgruber said. “We look for a payoff in the long term, not just in economic terms, but in terms of engagement with civic affairs, with the arts, with other aspects of our society.”

He concluded that because quality of education is tied to student-faculty interaction, lower-cost models of education will usually entail a trade-off in the quality of that education.

Eisgruber spoke at 7 p.m. in McCosh 50 to an audience composed mostly of graduating seniors. He gave a lecture at Reunions in June 2013 that also emphasized many of the same problems in higher education and stressed the importance of the University interacting with innovative technology through a continued involvement in Coursera.

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