The digital revolution in higher education has happened. In the fall of 2012, the most recent semester with complete data in the U.S., four million undergraduates took at least one course online, out of sixteen million total, with growth up since then. Those numbers mean that more students now take a class online than attend a college with varsity football. More than twice as many now take a class online as live on campus. There are more undergraduates enrolled in an online class than there are graduate students enrolled in all Masters and Ph.D. programs combined. At the current rate of growth, half the country’s undergraduates will have at least one online class on their transcripts by the end of the decade. This is the new normal.
The first for-credit classes appeared on the internet in the 1980s, but for decades after, such classes were concentrated in a few institutions. That period has ended. More than 95% of colleges and universities with over five thousand students offer online classes for credit. In the same way online dating went from “Eww, weird” to being as ordinary as two tickets to a movie, online education has stopped being “The Future” and has become a perfectly routine way to learn.
You wouldn’t know this from public conversation, where online courses are discussed as something that might be a big deal some day, rather than as ordinary reality for one student in four. The dramatic expansion of online classes has been largely ignored because it’s been driven by non-traditional students, which is to say students who are older and have more responsibilities than the well-off adolescents college has always stood ready to serve.
If you’re reading this, you were probably a smart kid who did well at a good school, and that description extends to almost everyone you know. The gap between the conversation about college and its reality exists because the people who drive that conversation — you and me and our friends — mostly talk about elite schools.
With the explosion of interest at the beginning of this decade, there was talk of how online education was going to be so excellent students would choose it over four-year residential schools. That conversation was typical of our highly educated tribe — for us to imagine something is good, it has to be good for us. Meanwhile, back in America, online education isn’t succeeding because it’s better than Oberlin, it’s succeeding because it’s better than nothing, and nothing is what’s on currently offer for millions of people.
Compare the recent threatened closings of Sweet Briar versus the City College of San Francisco. Sweet Briar has an enrollment of 530 and offers courses in horseback riding; CCSF has an enrollment of 85,000 and offers courses in motorcycle repair. The Sweet Briar kids will be fine no matter what happens to their school, while the CCSF kids are mostly not kids and mostly won’t be fine, if the local community college closes. Where Sweet Briar is threatened by declining interest from prospective students, CCSF struggles to meet demand; 10,000 students can’t get into the courses they need, a number equivalent to 75 years worth of admitted students at Sweet Briar. Yet it was Sweet Briar that occasioned national headlines. The threat to CCSF was treated as a local problem.
Our collective obsession with elite students and institutions means public conversations about college are increasingly irrelevant to the lives of many of the actual students. This becomes clear when you look at the list of things that heighten the risk of a student dropping out of a traditional college:
- The student did not enroll immediately after high school.
- The student is 25 or older.
- The student has dependent children or elders.
- The student is married, or a single parent.
- The student is enrolled part-time.
- The student works full-time.
One review of this list dryly notes “These risk-factors are strongly interrelated and students typically have multiple risk factors,” which is only to say that adults have more complicated lives than teenagers.
The same study notes that “students with higher index of risk had a significantly greater preference for distance education classes.” Among undergraduates taking all their classes online, half are married, compared with fewer than one in five undergrads generally. Half also have children. (Student mothers outnumber student fathers 2 to 1.) Two in three work; two in five work full time. A third live in rural areas, a far bigger proportion than the general population. Four out of five are 25 or older. Nearly half say “a personal event prevented me from continuing” at a physical campus.
Penn State’s online-only World Campus was an early example of online classes as a source of flexibility. As the name suggests, World Campus was designed to recruit new students from all over, but the institution quickly found most World Campus students were already enrolled at Penn State. Even students who look traditional use these classes to increase their chance of graduating.
One common observation about online education is that it will mean ‘bricks for the rich and clicks for the poor.’ Something like this has indeed happened, though ‘…clicks for the poorly served’ would be more accurate. Students taking online classes aren’t looking for bargains; the majority don’t take classes from the lowest-cost provider available. They are looking for flexibility, because they can’t quit their job or stop caring for their children or their parents just to attend college, but the world is telling them they need a degree to go from $7 an hour bagging groceries to $13 an hour drawing blood.
As long as we discuss online education as a pedagogic revolution rather than an organizational one, we aren’t even having the right kind of conversation. The dramatic adoption of online education is not mainly a change in the content of classes. It’s a change in the institutional form of college, a demand for more flexibility by students who have to manage the increasingly complicated triangle of work, family, and school.
Outside a relative handful of selective residential institutions, the principal function of college is to train and credential people for work. An Associate’s or Bachelor’s is no longer one way of getting a good job. It is just about the only way of avoiding low wages or unemployment. The earnings premium for having a college degree has stagnated, but the punishment for not having one continues to grow. The digital revolution is happening because a high school degree is a ticket to not very much, while the traditional form of college no longer works for the people who need a certificate of employability.
When Starbucks polled a sample of its workforce about possible benefits, eighty percent indicated interest in help finishing college. This led Starbucks to establish a program with Arizona State University, targeted at helping employees complete their degrees online. What made the headlines was the tuition subsidy, but what the program really does is provide students with the advice and support that is so often lacking as students try to figure out their options.
Starbucks realized that getting a diploma requires two skills — the ability to pass classes, and the ability to manage everything else about college — and that everything else is by far the harder job. This leads to the online paradox at community colleges: students taking online classes get worse grades, but are likelier to graduate, because students struggling in face-to-face classes are likelier to drop out altogether.
It’s amazing how difficult our institutions make it to manage everything about college outside the classroom, and how little it would take to make it easier.
When a group of colleges offering online classes in Connecticut decided to direct questions about financial aid to their shared IT call center, thousands of students called, but almost all their questions were some version of How do I apply?, What’s my status? or Why did I get this amount? Staff were trained to answer simple questions immediately and escalate only the few complicated ones; workload went down, costs went down, and student satisfaction went way up. The change didn’t take a lot of money. It did take a willingness to see the institution from the student’s point of view.
When Franklin University launched an online tool to let students see which of their previous courses would transfer, their enrollments grew 13%, a huge number in one of the core processes for a school. The portability of credit is a central issue for non-traditional students, yet there are still schools where you can only request a transcript via fax, with the usual effect on timeliness. (“Official transcript requests are processed within 10 business days of receipt.”)
When students taking the ACT college readiness exam were allowed to send four free copies of their results to colleges instead of three, poorer students used the extra test to apply to schools where admittance wasn’t a sure thing, and often got in to these ‘stretch’ schools. The cost of forwarding an additional ACT test is six dollars. Those kids should have been thinking “The lifetime value of going to a better school is way higher than $6.” Instead they were thinking “I only get three free tests, so I better not waste them on schools I might not get into.”
If you rank countries by rate of college enrollment, the U.S. is #1. If you rank countries by rate of college graduation, we’re not even in the top 10. This gap gives us the lowest graduation rate of any developed nation. We don’t have an admissions problem, we have a completion problem. Recognizing this means re-thinking who college is for. College is run by those of us who did well in college, so we tend to underestimate the harm we do to students whose lives aren’t like ours, harm created not out of malice but habit.
For the people who most need college, small inconveniences can be intimidating, and intimidation means not applying, or not applying to good schools, or not getting transfer credit. Even the idea of an alma mater, a single school you start and finish at, has become uncommon. Only 60% of students who receive a Bachelor’s degree graduate from the school they started at. (If that seems low, it’s because you and I went to schools with same-school graduation rates over 90%, another way our experience makes it hard for us to think about how college actually works in the United States now.)
We already know what the college of the future will look like, because the non-traditional students are creating it now. It’s a hybrid of online and in-person classes, centered on the student and not the institution, with credits accruing from multiple schools, and adding up to a degree in alternating periods of attendance and absence.
For most students, this will unfold over a longer period with more breaks than traditional categories like two- and four-year college would suggest. There is not one state in the union where even half the students graduate from four-year colleges in four years. It’s worse for people seeking Associate’s degrees. Fewer than a third graduate at all, from any institution. The labels two-year and four-year don’t even represent aspirational goals for a majority of students anymore. They are just anachronisms.
Given the lousy fit between institutional assumptions and the actual lives of most students, we should applaud their inventiveness in using digital options to make college work for them. But we should also recognize our complicity in creating a system that works so badly in the first place. Online classes are no longer surprising, or experimental, or rare. By adopting them, students are telling us what they need our institutions to become.