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The Future of College After COVID-19 – The Role of Online Education at Universities

Two people at a college wearing masks and social distancing

Before the coronavirus pandemic, only about 1 in 5 college students even took an online class. The vast majority opted for in-person, face-to-face traditional classes instead. But with COVID-19 lockdowns in place, colleges and universities scrambled to make the switch. Students found themselves participating in universities online. Faculty struggled to create virtual lesson plans and examinations. Fortunately, most succeeded and allowed students to finish out their semesters. But many wonder if these universities will forever be transformed.

The pandemic has caused many to reconsider higher education and its value. In the past, universities provided many benefits in addition to a good education that made it worthwhile. But now, the future of college is less certain. Will students’ experiences with universities online affect how they view a college education? Will faculty take the experience and pursue even greater use of technologies in their courses? Without question, virtual education poses a threat to traditional educational models. But just how much of a threat remains to be seen.

“[This semester] has the potential to raise expectations of using these online resources to complement what we were doing before, in an evolutionary way, not a revolutionary way.” – Eric Fredericksen, Associate Vice President, Online Learning, University of Rochester

Positive Lessons Learned in Attending Universities Online

From a student’s point of view, attending universities online definitely offers some advantages. Online courses naturally allow students to learn from the comforts of their home or any location for that matter. But at the same time, most provide continual education that enables students to work ahead if they choose. However, online education has the potential to reduce costs substantially. While this may not have been the case during lockdowns, it certainly may be moving forward. This is quite relevant given the amount of debt many students accumulate during the college years.

A female student studying on her iPad
It’s clear the bulk of the college experience is going to be spent online.

Over the last 40 years, college tuition has increased about 1400 percent. At the same time, higher education no longer ensures students will be able to attain a position in their educational field. As a result, many students and parents alike are questioning the real value of a college education. If attending universities online could reduce these costs substantially, this could be a game-changer. And at the same time, online curricula could also expand access to better universities. These are some clear benefits that change the way the future of college looks.

“I think the genie is out of the bottle. I think we’re having an open, honest conversation. I think it’s revealing some very ugly things. College is no longer a source of joy and upward mobility. It’s a source of anxiety and debt for American households.” – Scott Galloway, Professor of Marketing, NYU Stern School of Business.

Attending Universities Online Also Has Its Downsides

While better access and lower costs sound appealing, recent experiences in attending universities have not all been great.  According to recent surveys, three-quarters of students describes the quality of the education while attending universities online as poor. Similarly, two-thirds believed online courses were less effective than in-person classes. Naturally, this may not reflect an accurate portrayal of these courses. The urgency with which colleges had to scramble to change their platforms likely affected these experiences. But this does raise questions about online education and the future of college.

Quality of education is important, but colleges have traditionally offered more than simply an education. Specifically, many students value their experiences at college as much as they do their education. The friendships made during these years often last a lifetime. Likewise, students are able to tests boundaries in many ways in a relatively safe and protected environment. These have important implications for students in how they mature socially and otherwise. Placing a value on these additional aspects of university life is difficult. However, it is clear that attending universities online cannot provide similar experiences.

“What we are talking about when we talk about online education is using digital technologies to transform the learning experience.” – Vijay Govindarajan, Professor, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business

Investing in the Online Future of College

For many businesses, the online potential for universities in the future is quite attractive. Without a doubt, the educational system is a massive institution. Technological disruptions in such a sector could have profound benefits for an innovative tech firm. Many such “ed-tech” companies are already trying to make such an impact. For example, Cengage has seen a 55 percent increase in online textbook subscriptions since the pandemic. One Class is making an impact as an online exam-prep provider. And companies like Coursera have continued to add university partners to their massive open online courses (MOOC). Some even expect major tech giants like Google and Apple to get in on the action.

For universities, the pandemic has opened their eyes to a number of possibilities. From one perspective, colleges that fail to maintain adequate enrollment could well face extinction in the near future. With many students questioning the value of college in the aftermath of the pandemic, this is a real threat. But others see potential, especially larger universities with good reputations. By investing in their infrastructure for students attending universities online, these colleges could greatly expand enrollment. Faculty training, instructional design, and other innovations will be key in this regard.

“Administrators and educators are reframing their attitudes. That really is the difference-maker. The pace of adoption of those tools will accelerate.” – John Rogers, Ed-Tech Investor at Rise Fund

The Future of College Online

The online educational landscape is an evolving one, and the specifics are difficult to predict. However, the COVID-19 pandemic looks to be a catalyst that will disrupt a sector in need of disruption. Businesses that are innovative, quality-focused, and combined traditional courses with online opportunities will likely excel in this new environment. And those that can’t or don’t will likely fade away. The pandemic brought issues such as educational value and platforms to the forefront. Students and parents will therefore be looking at colleges with greater discernment than ever before. Online learning may not replace the traditional college experience for many. But a significant percentage will now consider attending universities online as a viable option. In other words, online education is here to stay and will represent an increasing part of the future of college.

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