Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Debate: Will COVID-19 Cause A Massive Shift By Colleges (And Law Schools) To Online Education?

New York Times op-ed:  The Future of College Is Online, and It’s Cheaper, by Hans Taparia (NYU):

CoronavirusUp until now, online education has been relegated to the equivalent of a hobby at most universities. With the pandemic, it has become a backup plan. But if universities embrace this moment strategically, online education could expand access exponentially and drop its cost by magnitudes — all while shoring up revenues for universities in a way that is more recession-proof, policy-proof and pandemic-proof. ...

[U]niversities don’t need to abandon in-person teaching for students who see the value in it. They simply need to create “parallel” online degrees for all their core degree programs. By doing so, universities could expand their reach by thousands, creating the economies of scale to drop their costs by tens of thousands.

There are a few, but instructive, examples of prestigious universities that have already shown the way. Georgia Tech, a top engineering school, launched an online masters in computer science in 2014. The degree costs just $7,000 (one-sixth the cost of its in-person program), and the school now has nearly 10,000 students enrolled, making it the largest computer science program in the country. Notably, the online degree has not cannibalized its on-campus revenue stream. Instead, it has opened up a prestigious degree program to a different population, mostly midcareer applicants looking for a meaningful skills upgrade.

Similarly, in 2015, the University of Illinois launched an online M.B.A. for $22,000, a fraction of the cost of most business schools. In order to provide a forum for networking and experiential learning, critical to the business school experience, the university created micro-immersions, where students can connect with other students and work on live projects at companies at a regional level. ...

Many universities are sounding bold about reopening in-person instruction this fall. The current business model requires them to, or face financial ruin. But a hasty decision driven by the financial imperative could prove lethal, and do little to help them weather a storm. The pandemic provides universities an opportunity to reimagine education around the pillars of access and affordability with the myriad tools and techniques now at their disposal. It could make them true pathways of upward mobility again.

Bloomberg op-ed:  College as We Know It Coming to an End? Don’t Bet on It, by Joe Nocera:

Do you remember MOOCs? The initials stand for massive open online courses, and there was a moment, about a decade ago, when they were all the rage in higher-education circles. Some predicted that online courses would become a dominant mode of learning, allowing universities to expand enrollment significantly while lowering their own costs. Although MOOCs are still around—mainly serving nonstudents paying for online lectures from high-profile professors—their impact on higher ed has been marginal. The reason is that students didn’t like online classes. Neither did their parents. And neither did their professors.

Students wanted to be on a campus, interacting with other students, going to basketball and football games, and generally absorbing the “college experience.” Parents had zero interest in paying upwards of $70,000 a year to have their children take classes on a computer screen. And professors objected as well, in part because they’re territorial and in part because interacting with students during a class was infinitely more difficult when the class was virtual. ...

The pandemic, of course, has raised the prospect that universities will have to change dramatically, just like so many other businesses. And the most common forecast is that the future of the university is online, especially since schools all over the country have been doing it since mid-March. ...

Will the pandemic change anything about university life? Sure, on the margins. For instance, it’s likely that practical majors will trump classic liberal arts majors. ... A second possibility is that the recession which will likely come in the wake of the pandemic will cause parents to become far more cost-conscious about college than they are now—and universities will be forced to react to that change. ...

Second-tier schools that need to compete for those students will have to adjust their prices downward. The economic pain likely to be meted out in the pandemic’s aftermath could well cause parents to search for education bargains—good schools with reasonable prices. A school might conclude that setting tuition at $25,000 instead of $50,000 could give it a competitive advantage.

For years critics have complained about the university business model—its bloated costs, the way it rewards research instead of teaching, its overemphasis on the football team, and so on. But here’s something to keep in mind. There was an influenza pandemic in 1957 and 1958. It did nothing to change the university business model. There was another one in 1968-69, which killed 100,000 Americans. That one didn’t change universities either. There may well come a time when the current business model will finally crumble. But it won’t be because of Covid-19.

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