Whatever Happened to Night School?

Barry Lenson

Sociologists say that if you study the language that people use, you can learn a lot about the society in which they live.

Could be. Here’s what language tells us about changes in American higher education.

“Night School” – Years ago, that’s where you went if you wanted to pursue college studies while you were too busy working a job. There was something of a social stigma to it, because the people who went to night school didn’t have enough money to go to a “real” college. Today, people take college courses at night because they are working during the day, because they are busy taking care of their kids during the day, or for other reasons that everybody respects. And of course, people are taking distance learning courses at night, in the morning – any time. And people who take college courses online are saving so much money, everybody knows they are smart.

“Summer School” – In days gone by, high school and college students went to summer school to repeat courses that they had messed up the first time around. (I know – I went to summer school to repeat every math course I took in high school.) Today, college students are taking summer classes for some very wise reasons. Some of these students take courses at community colleges, where the cost of a course is less than at their “regular” schools. Others take courses to explore subjects before they take them during the regular school year. So there’s no shame to going to summer school any more. We all know that it’s a smart thing to do.

“Remedial Education” – Years ago, students who needed a little extra time to master course content or basic skills were placed in remedial courses – and seen as “poor learners.” Today, thanks to online learning and other computerized systems for delivering learning, students can take courses at any speed they want. They no longer feel embarrassed about repeating difficult material. Distance learning is very flexible in that way. It adapts seamlessly to many different styles of learning.

Looking Ahead 25 Years . . . 

I don’t have a crystal ball that sees into the future. But I’m prepared to fast-forward to the year 2035 and make this prediction about another term that will have changed dramatically.

“College” – Back in 2010, most people still thought of college as a group of brick-and-mortar buildings on a physical campus that served students who possessed considerable financial assets. Today in 2035, those campuses still exist, but they have been forced to deliver their educational services at lower cost. And most college study today is done via distance learning courses, using computerized tools that deliver education at very low cost. The result? A quality college education is no longer for the rich. It is available to anyone.

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