Where Should Online College Students Live?

The pandemic has triggered massive online learning. Although many students will want to return to traditional classrooms, others have tried the online option and love it. Online learning offers more flexibility than traditional classroom instruction. But where should online students live?

Liberty University’s experience raises this question. As detailed in a the wall street journal article, the university decided to continue classes at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Then the governor of Virginia banned gatherings of more than 100 people, so the university switched to online learning. But school president Jerry Falwell Jr. told students they could stay home or return to campus, whichever they choose. Around 1,200 students returned to school to take online courses that could have been viewed anywhere in the world. Why did they choose to return to campus?

Most traditional residential college and university graduates have learned a lot outside of the classroom. Although some of that learning involved sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, much of that learning was about philosophy, politics, the nature of life, and just about anything a young person should reflect and debate. The late-night chats in the dorms—or the conversations in the cafeteria at lunchtime—were the most engaging part of college for many students. The case for students living in close proximity to each other is strong, even if they don’t need to walk into the same physical classrooms.

Yet there is also much to be gained by interacting with the external environment, what we used to call “the real world”. At my part-time job at a bike shop, I was the most educated employee – sophomore year of college. I worked alongside a retiree who came two days a week after a factory career. My manager had done a tour of duty in Vietnam and then became a car salesman before switching to bicycles. They were people I would not have met on campus or among the crowd of college graduates I eventually met off campus. The non-academic people provided me with a much broader picture of the public. I discovered their lives, their hopes and their dreams, their fears and their failures. They were good people who earned my respect not for their college degrees, but for their everyday values.

Summer jobs can provide similar exposure to a broader segment of the population, but some students use the summers to study abroad or intern at a workplace full of recent college graduates. They come into contact with less educated people only in restaurants and grocery stores, but without the close and repeated interaction that produces understanding.

Thus, one of the criteria for locating a student is interaction with non-academic people.

Living at home is cheap but lacks the experience of being with other students. In well-educated high-income families, living at home continues to separate the student from the larger group of less-educated citizens.

A variety of options will continue to exist for students, but a new choice may emerge: urban clusters of online students. Imagine a university offering virtual classes in a distinctive style. It could emphasize Liberty University’s conservative Christian values, or a social action theme, or an excellent book program. Then the university rents meeting space in urban locations in major cities, wherever they have a group of students. They might partner with an apartment owner for group housing. Students use the meeting area and possibly the living quarters to get to know other students, discuss classes in person, work on projects together, or do the social and extracurricular activities that provide so much educational value.

Students can live at home but use university meeting rooms to bond closely with other students. Or they may live among their fellow online students, but stay connected to their part-time jobs. These part-time jobs are easier to find when the employee is available year-round. Finding a part-time job during the school year and then a summer job for three months is a challenge, so many students don’t benefit from the work experience, both financially and educationally.

Some local connections may arise spontaneously, but a little help from the university would pay off big for students, which in turn would help retention and recruitment to the university. Done right, the school could also avoid the need for residential life deans and other administrators that drive up college costs.

The pandemic is accelerating many changes that would have happened anyway. E-commerce has likely gained five years in the past three months, while brick and mortar has contracted to where it was destined to be in 2025. Higher education had faced challenges with costs high and outdated methods, using a delivery model perfected in the Middle Ages. From the current chaos will develop new norms and practices. Blending online and in-person contact is one approach that is likely to find a strong niche in a very diverse offering landscape.

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