Here’s a jaw-dropper: AEI president Arthur Brooks, who leads one of the most influential think tanks in Washington, earned his undergraduate degree via correspondence course. In the Times today, Brooks explains why he did it, and why this option should be more widely available. Excerpts:

After high school, I spent an unedifying year in college. The year culminated in money problems, considerably less than a year of credits, and a joint decision with the school that I should pursue my happiness elsewhere. Next came what my parents affectionately called my “gap decade,” during which time I made my living as a musician. By my late 20s I was ready to return to school. But I was living in Spain, had a thin bank account, and no desire to start my family with a mountain of student loans.

Fortunately, there was a solution — an institution called Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J. This is a virtual college with no residence requirements. It banks credits acquired through inexpensive correspondence courses from any accredited college or university in America.

I took classes by mail from the University of Washington, the University of Wyoming, and other schools with the lowest-priced correspondence courses I could find. My degree required the same number of credits and type of classes that any student at a traditional university would take. I took the same exams (proctored at local libraries and graded by graduate students) as in-person students. But I never met a teacher, never sat in a classroom, and to this day have never laid eyes on my beloved alma mater.

And the whole degree, including the third-hand books and a sticker for the car, cost me about $10,000 in today’s dollars.

Now living back in the United States, I followed the 10K-B.A. with a 5K-M.A. at a local university while working full time, and then endured the standard penury of being a full-time doctoral fellow in a residential Ph.D. program. The final tally for a guy in his 30s supporting a family: three degrees, zero debt.

Brooks went to conventional universities for his graduate and doctoral degrees. I love this story, but I want to know more. Brooks’s is a spectacular success story, but I wonder how typical he can be. If you’ve ever met Arthur Brooks (I have), you’ll know that he’s extraordinary — extremely personable, full of energy, totally engaged and engaging. Basically, the kind of person who would succeed if he were selling cars in Poughkeepsie, or ideas in Washington, DC. I’d like to know more about his path from online degree to grad school. This story seems to vindicate the principle that it’s your graduate degree, not your undergraduate degree, that counts.

But how did the graduate schools to which Brooks applied know he was capable of doing the work, given his correspondence-course undergraduate degree? I’m genuinely curious; I don’t know how this works. I’ve often said that my father’s refusal to let me go into debt for a Georgetown undergraduate degree, sending me to LSU on scholarship instead, was one of the best things anybody ever did for me. But that’s not the same thing as taking correspondence courses.

Instinctively, I agree that it’s much more desirable for a student to learn in a classroom. The online course model seems to fit a mechanistic idea of education — that is, that education consists of data input. This model is well suited, I would imagine, to things like engineering and mathematics, but not so much to the study of literature and the humanities. The undergraduate classes that had the biggest impact on the kind of man I became were precisely those in which there was a high degree of interaction between the professor and the students. I wouldn’t trade those classes for anything.

However, I wasn’t going into deep debt for that experience. If I were going into deep debt for it, I would have been far less patient with the large number of students, especially in my freshman and sophomore years, who weren’t there to learn, and who were in college for the “experience” — i.e., football games, quarter beer night at the local bars, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the experience of college too. But it didn’t cost me as much as it does students today, and wouldn’t have even if I would have had to pay my entire way.

My dad chose to enter the military before he went to college, delaying his undergraduate career by a couple of years. He said it made a big difference in his experience. He found that those two years gave him a different perspective on his classes, made him more eager to learn, to take his studies seriously, versus seeing classes as the unfortunate price to be paid for the real business of college, which was football games, beer night, and so forth.

In a similar way, I can see how online college education can cut a lot of the b.s. out. We do online courses for our kids as part of their homeschooling program. This allows them to learn at their own pace. If they easily master certain lessons and concepts, they can move faster than they would if they were in a classroom. And if not, their mother (their instructor) can take the time they need to work on the problems.

What an undergraduate would miss in this model is the value in talking through lessons with fellow students. In my recollection, some of my learning in college took place in study sessions with fellow students, in which we talked through the things we were learning in class, and helped each other to understand. One of the highlights of my college years was one long, beery study session with some of the guys from my Existentialism class, in which we engaged in intense discussions of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Sartre, in helping each other to prepare for the final. It was exciting, it was stimulating, it was fun — and it was real and substantial work.

But again — I wasn’t going into deep debt for this. Would it have been worth it if the price were graduating over $100,000 in the hole? No way. No. Way.

Finally, there’s this. I believe the chief instrumental value of an Ivy League undergraduate education is in its networking and credentialing. What you learn at the Ivies matters less than the fact that you earned that Ivy credential, and you made social connections with men and women who will likely (because of the Ivy credential) be leaders in their fields, and therefore able to give you a hand up in the professional world. There’s no way to get that from an online education — and like it or not, it matters, though the degree to which it matters depends on one’s field, and on the degree to which one wishes to rise to the top of it.

Arthur Brooks is a terrific example of what one can do with an online education, but I doubt how representative his career is of the genre.

Nevertheless, I think online education, one way or the other, really is the future, and it’s the future because fewer and fewer people can afford a conventional college education. My oldest is 13, and you better bet that when the time comes for him to start looking at college, his parents will be exploring all options. There is no way in hell I’m going to allow my children to yoke themselves to a wagonload of debt, if I can help it.

Your thoughts?

UPDATE:  Oh, I forgot — online education deprives undergrads of elevating and important campus events like Safer Sex Balls. Obviously that’s a huge, huge blow against the concept. How could we expect undergraduates to have a meaningful college experience without such things?