Thursday, September 18, 2014

Online Learning and The Pressure On College Recruiters

Scott Jaschik reported in the September 18, 2014, issue of Inside Higher Education that higher education admissions directors are having a tough time meeting their recruiting targets.  Is online learning—now entering its third decade as a force for change in higher education—part of the solution?  Some thoughts:
            The 2014 survey reported in Inside Higher Education noted that admissions directors are focusing on finding more full-time undergraduates (81% of publics and 84% of privates) and minority students (733% or publics, 63% of privates), after which the publics and privates begin to diverge in their goals.   Interestingly, neither public nor privates seem to be particularly interested in attracting part-time undergraduates (40% of publics, 15% of privates), although they are interested in attracting veterans and military personnel (70% and 42%) and first-generation students (71% and 50%).  They are also interested in international students  (53% and 63%) and out-of-state students (60% and 64%), but apparently only if they are full-time.  In short, college admissions officers seem to want to attract the same kinds of students who came to higher education over the past generation and whose full-time presence on campus helped to pay for the dorms, classroom buildings, the grounds, the sports teams, etc.  The question is:  Is this population growing at a rate that will continue to keep the dorms, classrooms, etc., full?
            Meanwhile, online learning has been attracting to our institutions an increasingly large number of students who, for various reasons, cannot drop everything to attend college full-time.  In Grade Change, their 2013 survey of Chief Academic Officers, I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman reported that 7.1 million college students have taken at least one online course.  This is an increase of 411,000 over the 2012 findings.  Note that this figure includes all students—full-time, part-time, on-campus, off-campus.  Clearly, online learning continues to have an impact.  Online learning should be part of the strategy in attracting new students in several of the categories that admissions officers identified as being strategic:
            Full-Time Undergraduates   The U.S. Department of Education has noted that most high school graduates who are prepared to go on to college already do so.  Thus, if we want to increase the number of full-time undergraduate students, we need to increase the number of high school students who graduate ready to enter college. Online developmental courses—high school courses offered by higher education institutions—can help high schools ensure that their students develop the skills they need to enter college.  Colleges and universities can also use online courses as dual enrollment courses that give high school students an early opportunity to earn college credit as they earn high school graduation credit.
            Veterans and Military Personnel  Online learning is one of the few ways that service members can maintain progress toward their educational goals as they move from assignment to assignment. Penn State World Campus is one of many online providers who have been recognized as military-friendly institutions.
            First Generation Students  In today’s economy, many first-generation students will come to a decision about higher education once they are already in the workforce.  Moreover, they often lack family support and personal examples that make it easy for them to make the decision to leave home and move to a university campus.  Online learning allows these students to remain at home and to work and be part of their local community while they develop the confidence they need to become successful as full-time students.  A first year of online courses also greatly reduces the total cost of a degree for most students, helping to minimize dropouts due to cost.
            International Students  Online learning is a global phenomenon.  Higher education institutions increasingly are developing partnerships with peer institutions in other countries to offer joint degrees, especially at the graduate level.  U.S. institutions wishing to attract undergraduate international students to their campuses might consider collaborative programs that mix on-line courses with residencies at both institutions or some other mix of experiences to attract international students and to give their own students an international experience.             
            As we enter the third decade of online learning innovation, one thing seems to be clear:  the next generation of innovations should be focused on fully mainstreaming online learning, integrating it into institution-wide strategies to attract and hold students and an institution-wide vision for how the institution can best serve its communities.