Last week, at a conference for online learning leaders, I was reminded of a tendency of many in and around the online learning community to see our work in corporate/industrial terms. The idea of defining everything we do in business terms is unsettling for someone whose entire professional career has been in the service of public institutions.
Public and most private higher education institutions do not operate by “free market” principles. Instead, our colleges and universities—excepting the small number of for-profit companies that offer accredited degrees (often to students who fund their tuition with public funds)—are complex organizations that are largely funded by the public and serve a public purpose. Some are owned by their states; others are nonprofit corporations. All operate with significant financial support from the public through a combination of direct government funding and tax-supported financial aid for students. In doing so, they fulfill a social contract that they will address the public’s need for educated citizens and professionals in many walks of life. To speak of these institutions as if they were for-profit businesses denies the fundamental social purpose and values that define them.
There are undoubtedly many reasons why this perception has some to the fore. One is a broad array of for-profit companies have arisen that sell services to institutions that want to offer online programs but that lack the technical and support infrastructure to quickly achieve scale without help.
Another part of the problem is that, typically, these operations are expected to be “self-supporting.” I put that in quotation marks because very little of higher education is truly self-supporting. What I mean when I say that online learning is self-supporting is that, for the most part, they do not benefit from direct state subsidies. As a result, they typically are expected by their institutions to pay their own way and not divert public funds from other aspects of their institution’s mission. Because they represent a new expense, they must generate new revenue. That said, many of the students that they attract may be funded by taxpayers through public scholarships or loans. The public mission is maintained.
As a new mission at many institutions, there has been a need to isolate the online learning initiative so that it does not, in the attempt to serve new students, take resources away from existing programs serving more traditional students. Similarly, in most institutions (again excluding a small number of for-profit companies) after-cost revenue from tuition and fees is re-invested in the institution. Typically, this is what funds new program development, technological enhancements, professional development for faculty, expanded student services, etc. In some cases, excess revenue is distributed to academic units, where it can be used to support faculty research or other academic unit projects or returned to the central administration to support the institution in general. There is no “profit” involved.
Why do we offer online higher education? For many of us, online learning is a simple extension of a mission that we have pursued since 1892, when three relatively new American universities—Penn State, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin—launched correspondence study, the first generation of American distance education. Our purpose—then as now—was to extend access to higher education to adult students who otherwise could not practically pursue higher education. Over the years, distance education has adopted many new technologies—from radio and film in the 1920s to broadcast television in the 1970s, satellite and interactive video in the 1980s and, since the mid-1990s, the Internet.
Today, the need for colleges and universities to extend access to adult students has never been greater. Our society is changing. The U.S. Department of Education has noted that, to ensure that our society can thrive in a global information economy, we need to increase the percentage of high school graduates who go on to higher education from the current rate of 39 percent to 60 percent. Currently, most high school students who are qualified for higher education do, indeed, go to college. In order to meet the societal need, then, we must reach out to adults were not able to pursue higher education at the traditional 18-22 age or who find themselves needing additional education in order to grow professionally. This is our social mission: to empower adult Americans to meet the demands of a changing society. To see online learning only in profit/loss terms only diminishes that critical mission.
Online learning often began, by necessity, on the fringes of our institutions. However, it is clear that this innovation will find its proper place in the institutional mainstream as the long-term societal need--and our ability to respond to it--become better defined. At this critical juncture—when we are no longer an experiment but are not yet accepted as part of the core mission—it is essential that we maintain our sense of purpose and not be distracted by corporate thinking. Innovations with online learning are not about how best to exploit a market but how to realize a mission and to serve the greater good. It is time for those of us who have championed online learning innovations at our universities to stand proudly for our real mission: to structure higher education so that it can best serve the needs of new populations and, ultimately, the communities in which they live.