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THE GUIDE IN BRIEF

America’s universities are reckoning with online education

Sergiy Maidukov for Quartz
Published Last updated

💡The Big Idea

Online education could be transitioning from niche product to an essential element of the college experience. Here’s the TLDR to our field guide on higher education going remote


🤔Here’s Why

1️⃣ Covid-19 has forced universities across America to reckon with online higher education, many for the first time.

2️⃣ Some universities are embracing the business opportunity of remote learning.

3️⃣ But online learning is not without its critics.

4️⃣ This moment is challenging the US’s reputation as a premier destination for international students.

5️⃣ What happens next will define the future of the college experience.


📝 The Details

1️⃣ Covid-19 has forced universities across America to reckon with online higher education, many for the first time.

Students and parents—who previously may have associated online education only with dodgy degree mills—have been immersed in new systems of teaching and learning and once-skeptical faculty and administrators have been given a crash course in distance education.

The pandemic has prompted some students to rethink traditional colleges—particularly given that many schools are charging the same tuition for a remote experience—and enroll in universities that specialize in online education. And some of those online schools see an opportunity to capture formerly campus-bound students with degree programs that are faster and cheaper.

2️⃣ Some universities are embracing the business opportunity of remote learning.

In some cases, universities—seizing an opportunity to cut expenses in facilities and instruction—will embrace a hybrid model, where students attend classes both online and in person. In other cases, new, revenue-generating programs will expand the university to students who never step on campus. Some universities looking for a path online have bought struggling for-profit colleges. The strategy gives schools a new revenue stream without the trouble of building their own programs, but has invited significant criticism from faculty.

“The economic pressures on colleges are going to force some experimentation in that realm,” says Trace Urdan, a managing director at Tyton Partners, an investment bank that works with education companies. “In the longer term, it is about diversification of revenue”

3️⃣ But online learning is not without its critics.

For its advocates, online education means the expansion of opportunities to students for whom a college degree was previously impossible: working adults, single parents, the disabled, full-time caregivers, and students who couldn’t afford the rapidly escalating tuition.

But for its critics, remote learning means losing the essence of the college education.The organic process of learning from peers is replaced by a regimented experience and the campus atmosphere designed to foster critical thinking can’t be replaced by group chats on Zoom. At its worst, online education is simply about conferring degrees as quickly as possible, a credentialing service that doesn’t leave room for actual learning.

4️⃣ This moment is challenging the US’s reputation as a premier destination for international students.

Around 1 million students from around the world—led by students from China and India—poured onto US campuses last year to get a dose of American culture and education. The country has consistently ranked as the most popular destination for international students due to the quality of its teaching, cultural appeal, revered and historic universities, and job prospects after graduating, especially in the tech sector.

But foreign students currently considering whether to study in the US face a cocktail of concerns, from racism to uncertainty around visa and job prospects after graduation to the country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Universities hoping to hang on to the $45 billion in tuition fees and other spending international students bring to the US each year are trying to find ways to reach their students, from setting up temporarily in their home countries, to navigating online censorship.

5️⃣ What happens next will define the future of the college experience.

The debate about online higher education is really about the role of the college experience. Is college about economic advancement and social mobility, and preparing millions of high school graduates for well-paying careers? Or is it about building character and citizens, and training minds to think critically and with skepticism about the world?

In a sector that dates to the 1600s, change moves slowly, but the investments by universities in technology and training—and the growing acceptance of online learning among students, parents, and faculty—will permanently reshape higher education in America. As international universities look to the US as a model, the impact will eventually be felt globally.

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