June 15, 2020
The crises sweeping through our college and university campuses today – student debt, escalating costs, and the move to online and remote learning – did not arrive with the virus but have been building for decades. Fourteen years ago, long-time educational leader Kenneth Hartman wrote an op-ed titled “Schools must learn to use the Internet to quickly recover from a disaster.” He imagined the disaster taking the form of a pandemic — a scenario that now appears tragically prophetic. In an update published this March, Hartman notes that his warning was widely ignored — and that American universities “still lack the level of quality and scalability needed to meet the next national emergency.”
The pandemic has now forced us to confront this awkward truth: the current campus model is neither sustainable nor scalable. It opens the door to the solution: online services that are more efficient and less costly, provide more skill and career-oriented programs as well as liberal arts degrees designed for the online learner, and, most important, are scalable. It also offers us the opportunity to consider the more fundamental question — what is higher education for?
The answer has traditionally been a cultural assumption of mythic proportions: every young person must go to college to get a “real” education. The consequences of this myth are summed up in the telling statistic that over 40% of students who began a four-year degree in 2012 did not graduate within six years. In reminding us of this reality, Michael Horn and Bob Moesta note that this failure rate affects students from all socio-economic backgrounds. The title of their article, fittingly enough, is “Not Every Student Should Go to College. And That’s OK.”
Despite these results, universities, and liberal arts institutions especially, have not pivoted and are notoriously reluctant to design their programs around the job market. Even prep for the vaunted STEM curricula is not exempt: in “Is Algebra Really Necessary?”, Horn explains that the current approach to numeracy skills in secondary education is irrelevant in the real world. He and other experts point to “data fluency” as far more suited to student and employer needs.Most Popular In: Education
Degree or no degree, the largely unaffordable costs of physically attending a college or university are well-known. From an administrative perspective, high tuition fees were not an issue as long as students took loans to pay them. So, for years, demographic bulges and the allure of a four-year degree meant student populations surged, as did revenues. Administrators spent their budgets on expanding campus capacity to meet optimistic growth targets. But as those targets have failed to materialize, hundreds of institutions have been saddled with huge sunk costs, and in some cases, building loans to repay — while students have been saddled with astronomical debt totaling $1.6 trillion.
Meanwhile, state-level funding has been in steady decline as governments grapple with ever-expanding budget deficits. California, with the nation’s largest student population by far, recently announced a pending $1.7 billion cut to its university and college systems. Huge shortfalls like these prompted administrators over the years to recruit ever-expanding numbers of international students paying up to three times the amount of basic tuition. The Boston Globe reported that in the 2018-19 school year, there were nearly 1.1 million international students in the United States. Now the pandemic has undone the formula: international students, whatever their means, promise to stay away in droves this September.
Understandably panicked by the demographics and now the pandemic, American universities have been obliged to embrace online methods overwhelmingly, if reluctantly. In one pace-setting announcement, California State University has decreed that practically all its classes — affecting nearly half a million students — will be held online come September. We can take comfort in realizing this is not uncharted territory. Private sector online schools like American Public University (APUS) Education, Inc. have shown it’s possible to combine high-quality curriculum, real-world value and affordable fees, based on an entirely online structure (disclosure: I serve as a member of the APEI board, parent company of APUS).
Online learning Not uncharted territory for some higher education institutions
Still, online education does not enjoy a stellar reputation. Persistent problems include low completion rates in open enrollment programs, bored students and cheating on exams. More recently, widespread reports of unconnected students, poorly prepared instructors and risks like Zoombombing have conspired to make online and remote methods look like poor substitutes for the real thing.
Moreover, John Hechinger and Janet Lorin writing in Bloomberg Businessweek warn that 70% of America’s 1.5 million faculty members have never taught a virtual course — and only 15% of undergraduates did their coursework totally online in September 2019. On the other hand, a third of all college students took at least one online course in 2018-2019. The investment by institutions in providing high-quality online classes in a tight timeframe will therefore be considerable, but the demand is clearly there.
Recent research by Strada Education Network shows nearly two-thirds of young adults 18-24 have changed or canceled their higher education plans. Among those not currently enrolled, however, Americans ages 25 to 44 are just as likely to start a new program in the next six months as those ages 18 to 24. And, most importantly, online education is the top choice across all demographic groups.
Long-entrenched views of the purpose of higher education will make many educators and administrators hesitant to see their vocation in a new light. However, innovative solutions and pedagogies that create new models for learning in the liberal arts tradition will potentially benefit all learners in higher education. The major pain points will be letting go of the physical campus as the proper venue for learning, and getting used to the idea that universities can and should help their students learn job-related skills.
With the onset of the pandemic, American Public University announced in April a $20 million scholarship initiative “designed to bridge the gap for students who may be experiencing disruptions in progressing their education at their home institutions due to the global coronavirus pandemic.” Dr. Wally Boston, the President of APUS, stated that “we wanted to be able to provide a reasonably-priced online offering to as many students as possible while traditional classes may have been disrupted and demonstrate that a college education is affordable and scalable when you’re already educating more than 80,000 students online.”
But APUS is not the only promising model. Institutions considering reforms can look to many others in the field, such as the University of Maryland, which through its Global Campus (UMGC), serves 90,000 students worldwide at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Southern New Hampshire University’s success in online education has been so impressive that six years ago, Slate magazine called it the “Amazon.com of higher education.”
Large-scale, career-oriented learning programs offered online have proven benefits. They are much more affordable for most learners; provide excellent incentives for completing what they begin; and send graduates into the market with far better chances for becoming and staying employed. And, unlike the traditional model, these programs can be scaled up or down efficiently to meet changing demand.
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