Distance Education

On Tuesday President Obama announced that by 2020 the United States will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. This admirable goal will be difficult to deliver. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education recently reported that college tuition and fees rose 439 percent between 1982 – 2007, while median family income rose only 147 percent. The Center’s president commented, “If we go on this way for another 25 years, we won’t have an affordable system of higher education.”

Something has got to give. Yesterday’s Times reported that some colleges are experimenting with three-year programs that enable students to save a year’s tuition. I’ve often thought that the number of freshmen who “go away to college” will shrink dramatically in coming years, because students will be forced to stay closer to home to avoid room and board fees. But something more dramatic will be required to really address the problem of runaway costs.

On-line or distance learning, which reduces labor costs and pretty much eliminates the need for a physical plant, is one way to tackle the problem. I’ve always had a hard time even contemplating on-line learning. But I’m beginning to suspect that this is a failure of imagination on my part.


On the lawprof listserve, Professor Bill Slomanson recently posted about a Massachusetts court that used its equitable powers to waive the rule that an applicant seeking bar admission through the bar exam must have graduated from an ABA-accredited la w school. The applicant who benefitted from this equitable waiver was a graduate of Concord, a wholly on-line law school authorized by the state of California to grant JDs.

Here’s what the court said about the education the applicant had received:

The record contains quite specific information about the required and elective courses that Mitchell took as a law student at Concord-the course subjects, an overview of topics covered, and the legal texts and authors that were used-as well as a description of the extensive online research resources that were available to him. Our review of these materials indicates that Mitchell’s core course of study, and legal research resources, were substantively very similar to the core content offered by ABA-approved law schools. Mitchell v. Board of Bar Examiners, 897 N.E.2d 7, 11 (2008).

The court also noted that the applicant had passed the California Bar, had a scaled score on the multistate professional responsibility examination that was well above what was required by the board, and that:

Mitchell, who has represented himself throughout this case, filed briefs and gave an oral argument in this court that were of commendable quality, providing us with a concrete and positive illustration of his skills in legal analysis, legal writing, and advocacy.

The court was careful to note that it was providing a waiver only for this particular applicant and that it would not make any sweeping changes to its admission standards until the ABA had comprehensively reviewed on-line law schools. But its decision nonetheless suggests that distance education deserves a closer look from skeptics like myself.

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3 Responses

  1. David Bernstein says:

    When I was in college, I saved 15K and a year of opportunity costs by graduating in three years, primarily thanks to AP classes and the like.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    Distance learning to get a degree won’t solve much, unless employers are willing to accept such a degree as warmly as they do a conventional one. As for entrepreneurs, in many fields they can do well enough without a degree (the extreme example being Bill Gates). Without a major shift in employers’ mentality, distance learning might benefit only those who need a degree in order to sit for some professional certification exam, and, having passed it, hang out their own shingle.

  3. A.W. says:

    Mmm, I have long said that if you have to fight for any reason to get onto the bar (e.g. discrimination issues), REPRESENT YOURSELF. you will be the best piece of evidence in your own case. The mitchell case demonstrates that. Do you think he would have won if he felt he had to hire someone else to represent him? I doubt it.