Higher Education after COVID-19

Being present on a college campus was once inevitably part of obtaining a college education. COVID-19 has helped demonstrate that instruction and tutoring can be provided online.

December 9, 2020 • Pandemics and Policy
By Vance Fried and Byron Schlomach
Reading glasses on top of an open book with a laptop on top of a desk

Higher Education after COVID-19

Being present on a college campus was once inevitably part of obtaining a college education. COVID-19 has helped demonstrate that instruction and tutoring can be provided online.

December 9, 2020 • Pandemics and Policy
By Vance Fried and Byron Schlomach

States should

  • make early college high school education universally available with a goal of most college‐​bound students completing one to two years of college by high school graduation;
  • establish a seamless system of college course transfers so that students can easily matriculate with multiple institutions, including private internet‐​based ones, according to students’ needs;
  • eliminate formal education requirements for occupational licensing; and
  • require government agencies to eliminate unnecessary formal education requirements for government jobs.

Congress should

  • gradually reduce per‐​student grants and loans under Title IV (financial aid) to stop funding the additional costs of the college experience given the demonstrated effectiveness of online learning.

In spring 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all universities closed on‐​campus classes and hastily moved online. Perhaps inadvertently, they effectively admitted that their costly campuses are expensive luxuries. Food services, faculty lounges, classrooms with expensive multimedia tools, recreational and intramural sports facilities, and luxury dorms are expendable to students for learning purposes, while maintaining them remains a huge cost for schools.

COVID-19 helped demonstrate that instruction and tutoring can be provided online. Eighty percent of faculty members surveyed at Yale University after the first week of pandemic‐​imposed online instruction reported that their experiences had been good to excellent. Although in a more recent survey of students across the country, 7 out of 10 gave online instruction relatively poor marks. Clearly, more time needs to be spent on course design. The transition to online learning was unexpected and jolting in a way that had little hope of producing the best possible experience. Nevertheless, online instruction has proven itself sufficient and robust, with students taking a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) online physics course learning more than lecture‐​based students, influencing Harvard to offer exclusively online instruction in fall 2020. Since mid‐​March, when universities physically shut down during spring break due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Coursera, an online learning platform that includes top universities from around the world, has seen a 520 percent increase in enrollments over the same period last year.

Since instruction is easily propagated digitally, in‐​person class sessions and rigid time schedules can largely be eliminated. This dramatically reduces the cost of instructional delivery. Free‐​to‐​the‐​student (nothing being truly free) college is possible without increasing government subsidies. In addition, online instruction makes the whole education system significantly more nimble, reduces the amount of formal education necessary before entering the workforce, and makes just‐​in‐​time career education a realistic option for workers who can’t afford to completely stop working.

Reduced Need for the College Campus

Being present on a college campus was once inevitably part of obtaining a college education and the most efficient way to bring knowledgeable college instructors and students together. Now, through the internet, it is possible to bring the instructor and an engaging, rigorous curriculum to students in the comfort of their homes or in a dedicated blended‐​learning (also called “hybrid”) classroom at public high schools, churches, and community centers. Increasingly, the main reason for the college campus is to provide the “college experience”—the social interaction of students with each other and the wider college community.

Now, through the internet, it is possible to bring the instructor and an engaging, rigorous curriculum to students in the comfort of their homes or in a dedicated blended‐​learning classroom at public high schools, churches, and community centers.

The college experience is expensive, given its need for expansive buildings and grounds, as well as administrators and staff to provide nonacademic programs. For many students, the extra costs of four years of residential college are worth it, and not just because of Saturday football games and reveries at the local bar. Some consider the maturation and life‐​formation aspects of the in‐​person college experience invaluable. However, others in college only for the academics—or a credential—are anxious or even desperate to begin a career, are already in full‐​time work, or may only want a year or two of the college experience.

Online Academic Instruction

With today’s technology, physical requirements for many college courses are a personal electronic device (laptop, tablet, or smartphone) and an internet connection. Online coursework has long surpassed correspondence courses by mail. With email and discussion boards, online coursework is often qualitatively better than the physical classroom. Online textbooks include high‐​quality, interactive graphics and engaging videos. Online lectures give students on‐​demand access to the best professors giving their best lecture on their best day. The internet eliminates the need for a physical library for all but highly specialized research. Personal tutoring is inexpensive and can be available 24/7. Online test proctoring works well and is priced below physical proctoring sites.

General Education

Online delivery is especially suitable for general education courses, which are often taught impersonally in huge lecture halls. These courses are the freshman and sophomore classes required of every student to graduate, regardless of major. General education courses cover basically the same subject areas as high school but are taught at a more advanced level, though still not with a great deal of depth. Outside resources for these courses are readily available, and the subjects are familiar.

Online delivery can also be blended with discussion or lab sessions. At most, this requires students to spend an hour a week in a synchronous class session. These sessions can be delivered in virtual or physical classrooms.

Virtual sessions use video conferencing, discussion boards, and chatrooms. The primary advantage of a physical classroom is that it facilitates students forming informal relationships with their peers. Facility needs are minimal and flexible (e.g., a church basement rented for one night a week).

Career Education

Many career education courses are well‐​suited to pure online delivery; others work better with a mix of online and in‐​person instruction. When needed, synchronous classes can be delivered virtually. In fact, this approach is commonly used for graduate professional education. Nevertheless, physical classes may be necessary for courses requiring expensive equipment or hands‐​on training.

Social networking may also be a vital part of career education. College may serve as a source of valuable connections, as well as a logical entrée with entry‐​level employers. Social networking and informal peer learning and study are more likely in a blended format with a physical campus. However, these campuses do not require dorms, recreational centers, or football stadiums.

Reduced Cost of College Instruction

The cost of attending college has increased faster than inflation for decades. Online education will increasingly disrupt this trend. Once a lesson and supplemental content is developed and digitally recorded, the marginal cost of a student accessing it over the internet is nearly zero. Consequently, classrooms limited to 30, 50, or 100 students can be scaled to thousands. Online instruction does require significant cost to properly develop a course. In addition, each student requires individual record‐​keeping, exam‐​proctoring, exam‐ and assignment‐​grading, and feedback. This means online courses cannot be free, but they can be very inexpensive at scale.

Without a physical campus, most of the need for building construction and maintenance expenses can be avoided. Professors do not have to be full‐​time employees, which reduces the expense of support personnel. Nor is there any need to spend money to support extracurricular activities. Tuition can be reduced considerably. The high cost of the “college experience” can be avoided without sacrificing a high‐​quality college education. Online education makes the high‐​quality $10,000 bachelor’s degree possible. In fact, college could be “free” to the student, more widely available, and cheaper for the taxpayer if states shifted from subsidizing on‐​campus education to supporting low‐​cost online classes.

An Associate’s Degree by High School Graduation

Early college high school programs allow high school students to simultaneously earn the credits required to earn a regular high school diploma and earn college credits that count toward a college degree. A common early college high school model sees high school students concurrently enroll in courses from a local public college or university. The student either attends a section of a college class on the college’s campus or college faculty members teach a course for participating students at the high school.

With this model, high schools can also offer college general education through online or blended dual‐​enrollment courses. The college provides the curriculum and grades exams while high school teachers run any discussion and lab sessions. High school teachers, acting as tutors, do not need direct supervision by the college, nor are they required to meet the expensive and excessive‐​at‐​this‐​level educational requirements for being a college instructor. This model allows most college‐​bound students to complete all their college general education while in high school. Any school district can offer early college high school programs in this way, regardless of size, location, or student socioeconomic background.

Because online and blended delivery of college classes require significantly less instructor time than traditional high school courses, the cost of early college high school is less than that of traditional high school. Thus, two years of college can be provided within existing secondary education budgets. High schools (or states) could pay the tuition costs, offset by savings at secondary schools from reduced personnel needs. Taxpayers would reap an additional benefit because they would be subsidizing fewer years of education overall: with an early college high school approach, the time from kindergarten to a bachelor’s degree is 15 years rather than the traditional 17.

Because courses are online, there are no reasons to limit the high schools’ and students’ options to a local public college. They should be able to pick from any college willing to meet the price that a district or state would pay. Such competition would improve both price and quality.

Independent Learning

In addition to the direct costs of formal education, there are significant student opportunity costs. Every hour spent on formal education is an hour that cannot be spent earning income and gaining practical experience. While many careers may benefit from some formal education beyond high school, that does not mean that a four‐​year bachelor’s degree is necessary in every or even most cases. Short‐​term vocational courses are enough for many careers and have long been a source of credentialing apart from college.

The internet makes it simpler and less expensive to learn apart from formal education. There is a tremendous amount of free or low‐​cost information available. Online education also makes it possible to provide career education in much smaller doses delivered on demand. As a result, students need less formal career education before entering the workforce, and it is easier for them to take additional formal education in small doses as their careers require.

Colleges should have a general education component that is available via early college high school, but the amount of formal career education needed beyond that varies according to specific career requirements. For many nontechnical careers, minimal to no formal career education is necessary. Vocational schools or associate’s degrees are often sufficient. More technical work requires more time but not necessarily a full two years.

Alternative Credentialing

A college degree is not the only credentialing mechanism. Trade experience and specialized schools in welding, automotive repair, carpentry, and machining have long served as signals to employers. Many modern skills such as programming and data analysis do not require muscle‐​memory training, so internet‐​based instruction could take on a huge role.

Most major technology companies such as Google and Microsoft certify individuals in their program languages and developer tools, with much or all of the learning occurring online. Cisco Systems provides information technology certifications, as does the Computing Technology Industry Association and (ISC)2. Individuals can also obtain Project Management Professional certification, which is attractive to many employers.

Other organizations have been created strictly to provide advanced education independent of any college or university. For example, Udacity provides “nanodegrees” in a variety of information technology and engineering courses. It requires students to complete real projects to demonstrate their learning. In addition to their nanodegree from Udacity, students have multiple completed projects that they can show potential employers. Completion of a Udacity nanodegree sends employers a strong signal of student competency. Udacity nanodegrees are a prominent example of the movement away from bachelor’s degrees to micro‐​credentials.

Mainstream universities have started their own ventures in providing online college credit and degrees. These include EdX, a nonprofit learning platform founded by MIT and Harvard; and Coursera, a learning platform that works with such institutions as Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan.

Required Reforms

Credit Transfers

Many states have systems to align courses across public institutions. A seamless system makes it easier for students to matriculate at multiple institutions to give students the ability to move from one college to another according to their needs—as opposed to the wishes and designs of institutions. A college can still require its students to complete half of their courses within that institution. Thus, it has long been common for students to take two years at a public community college and then transfer to a public university to take the remaining two years for a bachelor’s degree. Many states also allow in‐​state private institutions to voluntarily participate in their course transfer systems.

All states should mandate systems allowing for easy transfers of course credits across and into public colleges. Students would also benefit from a transfer system at the national level. This could be achieved by voluntary agreements between states.

Early College High School

While not for every student, early college high school can benefit most students who plan to earn a college degree. Making it universally available may require giving local high schools more flexibility in curriculum, staffing, and budgeting. It also may require modification to the funding formula that a state uses to allocate money among their public schools. The selection of colleges should not be geographically based, with the local college forced on the high school. The student and/​or high school should be allowed to choose any reputable institution.

Government‐​Required Credentials

Depending on their choice of career, many individuals are forced to spend excess time in college to meet arbitrarily determined formal education requirements to gain a mandatory occupational license. Occupational licensing educational requirements are ubiquitous, generally excessive, and often irrelevant. For example, in Oklahoma one must take college courses in subjects such as human anatomy, human physiology, microbiology, and chemistry to pluck hair with the aid of an electric probe. If a licensing exam rigorously tests relevant knowledge, then the exam should be sufficient, regardless of how that knowledge was obtained.

Government Employment

Federal, state, and local governments as major employers can lead the way in eliminating unnecessary formal education requirements for new employees. This would significantly reduce the costs of entry into the workforce—particularly benefiting students from low‐​income families who can ill afford wasting time and money on unnecessary formal education. Government as an employer should make sure its career education requirements match those necessary for a position rather than default to a bachelor’s degree. President Trump issued an executive order in June 2020 that requires federal agencies to do this. States should follow suit.

Reduce Per‐​Student Funding under Title IV (Federal Financial Aid)

The additional costs of on‐​campus education are not necessary for academic purposes. Some may find the “adulting” aspects of the residential college experience beneficial, but they are not necessary. In fact, millions of Americans have become adults without a residential college experience. The additional expense of the college experience is not something federal taxpayers should be expected to finance. It should therefore be a policy of Congress to incrementally reduce federal financial aid spending on a per‐​student basis to levels that would fund online education but not the additional cost associated with on‐​campus education. In fact, now may be a good time to phase out all Title IV aid.

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Having thoroughly disrupted communications and the retail, hospitality, and taxi industries, internet‐​based innovation is now disrupting higher education. COVID-19 did not cause this disruption. It simply accelerated its speed by emphasizing how educationally unnecessary costly brick‐​and‐​mortar campuses festooned with expensive amenities truly are. Policymakers and educators need to adjust higher education and other labor market policies to catch up with the new reality.

About the Authors
Byron Schlomach

Byron Schlomach is director of the 1889 Institute.