Education and Skills

COVID-19: Why higher education in the US must embrace digital 

A master's student about to graduate from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

The pandemic showed us that traditional, on-campus learning can no longer fully meet society's needs. Image: Reuters/Andrew Kelly

Daniel Rosensweig
CEO, Chegg
Paul LeBlanc
President, Southern New Hampshire University
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• The pandemic is an opportunity to change higher-education delivery.

• Online learning is cheaper and more flexible than the traditional on-campus variety.

• Universities should embrace a new role as validators of education.

The ongoing global pandemic has changed much of our daily lives, and education is no exception. Almost overnight, students at all levels were forced to homeschool online with little time to prepare. This shift was scary and uncertain for academic institutions, teachers, professors, students, as well as parents now forced to abandon the schooling routine to which they had come accustomed.

While the shift has been devastating to many, it also marks an opportunity to address many of the inequities in higher education: increasing costs, greater debt, limited access and curriculum, and a failure to effectively utilize technology to benefit the modern student. In many countries, including the United States, traditional higher education is out of reach for many, and is being re-evaluated for its relevance and return on investment.

The past decade has seen a simultaneous increase in both the demand for and the cost of higher education (the expense of a four-year college degree has increased by 25% since the 2008 recession). Instead of innovating and expanding access to their curriculum to a more diverse audience, colleges have been able to raise their prices annually, benefit from a largely closed system of accreditation, and engage in an arms race regarding campus facilities.

Despite innovations in technology ... we have not yet seen the great shift to accessible, affordable, high-quality education. Perhaps now is that moment.

The average endowment across the sector remains pretty small, despite the overblown endowments of a small number of prestige schools, so annual tuition increases have become the norm. This is especially true in public institutions, which saw widespread and deep budget cuts during the 2008-09 recession. Finally, in an increasingly digital world, most of higher education remains analogue. Despite innovations in technology and new approaches such as massive open online courses (or MOOCs), we have not yet seen the great shift to accessible, affordable, high-quality education. Perhaps now is that moment.

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Today, we still see traditional institutions trying to protect their on-campus degree programmes and their analogue campuses, instead of expanding access through online education. Relying on longstanding tuition-dependent business models, universities are desperate to reopen campuses, collect full tuition, and protect those increasingly broken business models, rather than expanding access to online degrees.

But COVID-19 has brought about an opportunity for change. The quality of well-designed online degrees equals or betters much of traditional face-to-face delivery on campus, and the digital natives coming of college age are perfectly happy learning online. Many still want and benefit from an on-campus experience, but given the diversity in age and economic needs of Americans today, on-campus study offering a coming-of-age experience is often not the right answer and frequently out of financial reach.

Opening up to new, primarily online forms of education means that students can learn from more sources in a greater variety of ways; something universities should embrace. Southern New Hampshire University and Chegg’s career accelerator, Thinkful, recently launched a collaboration in which any Thinkful student can use their existing credits to transfer towards a traditional degree at SNHU. We know that 80% of students enroll in higher education for better career opportunities, yet the majority say they lack marketable skills when entering the workforce. This kind of collaboration works to solve the problem of expanding access and validating alternate education pathways. We see these kinds of collaborations as a model for higher education: affordable, collaborative, skills-based, credentialed, and embedded in the institution as a whole. An online master’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech is another example of educational innovation and it is now the largest such programme in the country.

The cost of higher education is increasingly unaffordable
Higher education is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Image: Statista

The old binary of online versus face-to-face education is tired. It misses the point that many students either desire or require digital options in order to access higher education. For too long there was a false dichotomy between “traditional” higher education and the larger education ecosystem: on campus vs online, in person vs asynchronous, skills/career focus vs holistic. If the pandemic proves anything, it is that we need to abandon these false dichotomies and embrace a vision of higher education that takes advantage of all the ways students can learn.

Education comes in many forms: online, on the job, skills-based, at an existing degree programme, or with other credentials. With competency-based or skills-based education, digital platforms and a growing array of learning providers, it is time we focus on the needs of individual students; on demonstrating what they can actually do with what they have learned, and pathways into meaningful work and lives.

Partnerships across the learning ecosystem and a recognition that high-impact learning can take many forms in many settings – many digital – can help address the urgent problem of getting people back to work and ready for a workforce that is changing at a ferocious pace. Universities will increasingly find that their value-add is in recognizing and validating and lending credentials to learning, and less about the curation and delivery of content knowledge.

This crisis has highlighted something we have understood all along. We need to redefine how we think about education, allowing for greater access for and support of the student. This is a call to action to forever change the nature of higher education throughout the US.

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