Could COVID-19 be the catalyst for a transition to online college degrees?

Like thousands of US colleges and universities this spring, Simmons University in Boston had to adjust to Covid-19 on the fly, closing lecture halls and moving classes online. And like many of its peer institutions, Simmons is preparing for a remote fall.

Simmons, however, is going further. Not only will all classes go online this fall, but it’s launching a new undergraduate online program that extends into the future. Offered through 2U, a education tech company, the online undergraduate program will serve not just current Simmons students but “new types of students as well, those who would not otherwise be able to participate in the distinctive, excellent education that Simmons provides,” Simmons then-president Helen Drinan said in a May 8 letter to students and alumni.

A private, all-women’s institution founded in 1899, Simmons is atypical of the institutions offering online education for undergraduates—it’s not a big state school like Arizona State nor a for-profit like the University of Phoenix—but it is a harbinger of changes to come.

Covid-19 has forced universities across America to reckon with online higher education, many for the first time. Students and parents—who previously may have associated online education only with dodgy degree mills—have been immersed in new systems of teaching and learning and once-skeptical faculty and administrators have been given a crash course in distance education.

History may look back at this year as the turning point when online education began its transition from a niche product to an essential element of the college experience, as much a part of higher education as lectures and laboratories. In some cases, universities—seizing an opportunity to cut expenses in facilities and instruction—will embrace a hybrid model, where students attend classes both online and in person. In other cases, like at Simmons, new, revenue-generating programs will expand the university to students who never step on campus. And in some instances, completely new forms of education will develop and gain traction.

In a sector that dates to the 1600s, change moves slowly, but the investments by universities in technology and training—and the growing acceptance of online learning among students, parents, and faculty—will permanently reshape higher education in America. As international universities look to the US as a model, the impact will eventually be felt globally.

“People are thinking of Covid like it’s an earthquake and an earthquake is the right analogy, but it’s happening in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” said Ben Nelson, an entrepreneur and founder of Minerva, a selective online college. “It’s enormous but no one feels it until it builds into a tsunami.”

Building the online university

Across the country from Simmons, technicians at Arizona State worked the last few months installing thousands of cameras and other technology in 800 classrooms and learning spaces for remote teaching. It’s not intended to be a temporary measure, said president Michael Crow. “We didn’t spend $10 million this summer to equip all these classrooms for a semester or two of Covid,” he said.

For more than a decade, Crow has been an evangelist of online education, and this spring Arizona State conferred 42,642 degrees to students who were entirely online, up from 1,582 in 2011. Students at the university can take classes in person or remotely, a hybrid model that helps them progress through their degrees faster and enables more double majors.

Crow envisions Arizona State as the vanguard of an online revolution, with vastly expanded access, and college degrees available to all who want to work for them.

“There’s a need to get millions more deeply educated,” Crow said. “We’re doing everything we can to take our on-campus experience to make it unbelievable, but in addition to that, we can see all the people who couldn’t come and who wanted to come.”

For students, the rise of online education means some are rethinking traditional colleges—particularly given that many schools are charging the same tuition for a remote experience—and enrolling in universities that specialize in online education. And some of those online schools see an opportunity to capture formerly campus-bound students with degree programs that are faster and cheaper.

Western Governors University, a private, online university created by a group of governors of Western states in 1997, specializes in degrees for working adults. But there is growing demand for its programs from the traditional college-aged students who see the appeal of earning a degree while working, said Marni Baker Stein, WGU’s provost.

WGU’s enrollment of students between ages 18 and 24 increased more than 10-fold, from less than 1% to 12%, between 2016 and 2020, Stein said.

“There’s a growing number of kids in that age group who really love that earn-and-learn model and don’t want to take on that enormous amount of debt and want that experience,” she said. “Covid just puts the exclamation point on it.”

For its advocates, online education means the expansion of opportunities to students for whom a college degree was previously impossible: working adults, single parents, the disabled, full-time caregivers, and students who couldn’t afford the rapidly escalating tuition.

But for its critics, remote learning means losing the essence of the college education.The organic process of learning from peers is replaced by a regimented experience and the campus atmosphere designed to foster critical thinking can’t be replaced by group chats on Zoom. At its worst, online education is simply about conferring degrees as quickly as possible, a credentialing service that doesn’t leave room for actual learning.

The debate about online higher education is really about the role of the college experience. Is college about economic advancement and social mobility, and preparing millions of high school graduates for well-paying careers? Or is it about building character and citizens, and training minds to think critically and with skepticism about the world?

For the second half of the 20th century, the aim was to do both in the US, and the growth of public universities meant a first-class education with low tuition was widely available. But cutbacks in state subsidies means the average tuition at four-year state universities has tripled since 1990 (from $3,510 to $10,440), sending student debt skyrocketing, and the number of recent high school graduates in four-year colleges has plateaued at about 44% after steadily rising from 1970 to 1990. The growth of online education could expand access again, but permanently change our understanding of college.

A short history of online education

Remote learning in the form of mail-in college correspondence courses dates back to the 19th century (and are still used by prison inmates), but the first institution to offer degrees online was Jones International University, a for-profit school founded by cable TV entrepreneur Glenn Jones. Jones, who started Mind Extension University as a cable channel, saw the potential of going online in 1993, and his school was accredited (pdf) six years later, although not without objections from university professors. It closed in 2016.

Other for-profit schools soon followed, and trade schools such as ITT Tech and DeVry expanded from offering traditional vocational degrees in auto and electronics repair to awarding bachelors and masters degrees. Using aggressive—and at times deceptive and fraudulent—marketing techniques and liberal use of federal student loans, the for-profit online sector boomed. By 2010, more than 2 million students—many of them adult learners and members of the military—were enrolled in for-profit institutions, a tenth of all college students.

It didn’t take long for the industry to collapse, however, as investigations (pdf) and lawsuits exposed the for-profit institutions’ low graduation rates, high levels of student indebtedness, and poor record of career placement. Last year, the University of Phoenix, which at its peak boasted an enrollment of 470,000, settled with the Federal Trade Commission for $191 million over claims it deceived students with misleading advertising. Most of the money will go to cancel student debt.

Traditional universities could have filled the gap, but they were busy pursuing another online venture: massive open online courses, or MOOCs, an idealistic effort to make college education free and universal. Hundreds of courses from the nation’s top universities were launched and millions enrolled on platforms like edX and Coursera, but few students ever completed them, and with no promise of a degree, there was no obvious path to monetization. (Eventually, those same universities found more success offering online graduate degrees).

The void in online undergraduate education left by the collapsing for-profit universities was instead filled by an eclectic group of private, non-profit schools who invested in their online capabilities and, just as critically, their marketing. Western Governors, Southern New Hampshire, and Liberty aren’t at the top of US News’ list of best colleges, but they have captured a large chunk of the adult students looking for a reputable alternative to the disgraced for-profits. Each now has a total enrollment of more than 100,000.

Those universities, as well as a handful of public universities such as Central Florida and Arizona State, have honed a formula that leverages the internet’s ability to offer services at scale.

They target adult students who are focused on completing a degree and aren’t in college for parties or intramurals. They accept credits from other institutions, and let students count their real-world experience, meaning students earn their degrees faster. They offer a limited range of majors and degrees, helping keep costs down. And perhaps most importantly, many offer competency-based learning, where students progress at their own pace, studying until they pass an assessment that allows them to advance. Their progress is monitored by program mentors, who serve as advisors and coaches.

What is college for?

The advantages of the competency model are obvious. Competency-based programs mean students learn asynchronously, and don’t have to be online at a specific time. They can adjust or pause their course load depending on circumstances. And because they are easily scaled, costs can be controlled, so tuition can be as low as $320 per credit hour at Southern New Hampshire, or $9,600 a year, less than a third of the average cost of a private university.

An online degree from institutions like Southern New Hampshire or Western Governors comes with tradeoffs their students accept, said Stein, WGU’s provost. “They are not getting a football team and a leafy campus with a Starbucks,” she said. “They are getting value-packed experience that’s aligned with their goals.”

But to the critics of competency models—and of online education more broadly—the students are missing more than just frat parties and tailgates. They’re missing out on a real college education.

Competency-based learning “takes the assessments, which should be a small part of the college education, and makes it the main part,” said Johann Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University and author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform.

“They’re not actually democratizing the college experience, they are democratizing degrees, but degrees are not the main part of college,” Neem said. “The purpose of college is to produce knowledge, it’s not to streamline it, like a factory.”


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