How Distance Learning Can Disrupt Higher Education

Well into our second month of social distancing, it appears that the tide is beginning to turn in the war against COVID-19.  Here in New York State, the daily death count, hospital utilization rates and number of new cases are all dropping, which is good news. We have “flattened the curve” and people are beginning to talk seriously of reopening our economy.

Many colleges and universities are announcing plans to reopen their campuses for the Fall 2020 semester, which is more good news, although a reoccurrence of the virus could upset those plans. During the shutdown, students continued their studies and completed their degrees remotely thanks to distance learning; their professors adapted to using online tools like Zoom and Google Classroom.

Although distance learning has been around for many years, never before had it been used by so many. It was as if overnight people had to learn to drive instead of taking the train. Education experts have speculated on whether it will permanently transform higher education and raised questions about the value of the four-year residential experience that graduating high school seniors dream of.

City College of New York and other colleges and universities moved classes online after the coronavirus crisis forced them to close their campuses.

A degree from a private, four-year residential college, especially one that accepts only one out of every 10 applicants, has long been considered the gold standard of higher education. But, with tuition rising much faster than the rate of inflation and outpacing wage growth, the price/value equation has been thrown off balance. A four-year degree from an Ivy League school now costs between seven and times as much as one from CUNY. Unless a student has wealthy parents, is able to get a scholarship, or is willing to be saddled with debt, a degree from a private, four-year institution is probably out reach.

Distance learning has become a major force higher education, in part, because it is more affordable. Liberty University, a private, Christian institution that ranks as the largest U.S. university, has 94,000 online students, but only 15,000 registered at its Lynchburg, VA, campus. Gray Associates, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm that tracks student inquiries, reports than in March 2020 inquiries for online programs rose by 10 percent while they fell 16 percent for on-campus programs.

But is it a panacea for students and institutions? Besides lower cost, distance learning offer schedule flexibility, which is a real boon to adult learners and students with full-time jobs and family responsibilities. As it gains credibility more employers will become willing to hire graduates holding online degrees.

Unless a student has wealthy parents, is able to get a scholarship, or is willing to be saddled with debt, a degree from a private, four-year institution is probably out reach.

However, to succeed a student needs to have some technical proficiency as well as reliable access to the Internet. He or she also needs to be self-motivated because there will be no one to check up on their progress. Classes that require extensive lab or studio time will be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. Additionally, learning without the benefit of being on campus could result in disconnect between student and institution.

The bottom line: Distance learning improves access for adult learners and makes college more affordable, however, graduation rates lag behind traditional programs. That gives institutions that rely on traditional campus-based learning an opportunity to rightfully stress student success in their marketing.

Online programs need to improve student support services and help students connect with faculty and their peers in order to improve graduation rates. Also, they should offer individualized programs that enable students to take a mix of on-campus and online classes.

Distance learning can improve access and enable more students to benefit from higher education’s transformative power. But, unless it empowers nontraditional students to succeed its value will be limited. Those institutions that can make it work will enhance their stature and make greater contributions to society.

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