Forced to abandon traditional on-campus activities and in-classroom teaching, universities and colleges have been proactively exploring new ways to expand their online formats. Their efforts, however, will unlikely save the higher education system from the fundamental changes that await in the coming years.
The higher education system has attracted skepticism even before the pandemic. The rising role of technologies and significant changes throughout occupational groups points to the fact that too many educational programs provide too little skills to succeed in the changing economic environment and yet charge too much.
Against the market demand, the tertiary educational system continued to rely on its traditional tenets and, according to the Economist Intelligence Units, remained unaffordable throughout the majority of countries worldwide.
High costs ultimately transformed the industry into a bizarre concoction of ineffective learning methodologies with an egregiously high rate of unsubstantiated self-esteem. As a result, B and C-class schools mushroomed across the Western economies and charged thousands of dollars for predominantly useless diplomas that were excused by fun times on campus surrounded by the largely procrastinating student body.
Declining Revenues and Academic Disruption
The current pandemic has emerged as a litmus test of the higher education system. Although many schools were forced to transition to the online format, very few turned out to be prepared for it. High costs and inadequate learning standards have already unofficially established many colleges and universities as places that were more valued for their social experiences rather than knowledge.
In times when it is no longer safe to remain on campus and studies have transitioned online, many universities will come under serious pressure.
Today, there is a consensus that the COVID-19 vaccine is not likely to become widely available until mid-2021. Therefore, the current disruptions across all spheres of academic life will persist throughout the upcoming academic year. Recently, Cambridge University announced that it will move learning online for a full year. As the situation with the virus remains volatile, the majority of schools could be expected to follow the same pattern.
The migration to online learning and fewer activities on campus will ultimately impact college revenues and attendance. More students might ask for a gap year or a refund on tuition and fees, which will impose financial strains on many universities, particularly small ones. This will also seriously impact private schools and those from the non-elite cohort.
Recently, even such wealthy private schools as Duke University and Georgetown University announced that they will suspend contributions to their employee retirement plans along with other cutbacks to address the ongoing recession.
Less affluent schools will likely implement even more drastic measures that might lead to the reshuffling of their curriculum. Thus, many might use the momentum and carry out a major reordering of academic programming to the detriment of the humanities and traditional in-residence education.
Permanent Online Presence
The current experiment with online learning might stick. With more schools being forced to cut their expenses and reshuffle academic programs, online learning could emerge as a viable and cost-saving alternative.
We have already seen a dramatic increase in online learning. Today, one can obtain an online MBA or any other degree for a lower cost and within shorter time-frames than a traditional education program. The impact of the pandemic will likely expand online learning and push more schools to embrace this format.
With more schools migrating online, we will likely see its growing recognition on a public level, alongside a sharp increase in competition. The opportunity to sell degrees to people living in any part of the world and capitalize without spending extra funds on maintaining large campuses and paying salaries to personnel will ultimately boost the popularity of online education. This, however, will also come as a double-edged sword.
As the popularity of online education grows, it will equally attract both top schools with names and B and C-rated ones. Clearly, those without big names will be the big time losers. Not only will such schools compete among each other, but their market share will be compressed by the expanding admissions among elite universities. In effect, many small and private schools will likely shut down and others will have to restructure their academic programs in line with market demand.
More Affordability and Inequality
Online learning will make education more affordable. The current pandemic will not only contribute to the public acceptance of online degrees, but will also expand the number of programs that migrate online. Thus, it will be possible to get decent online education from basically any part of the world and for lower fees. But this does not mean that online education will facilitate equality – and in fact it may do quite the opposite.
Current trends suggest that education will become more fragmented. The elite schools that will be able to withstand the current disruption will continue to offer traditional residential education to a minority of wealthy and gifted students. The cost of such an education will probably become even higher, while the personalized attention that comes during in-class learning will supply the privileged cohort with a competitive advantage.
Despite possible improvements, online education will still lag behind traditional forms of learning. If the majority of students begin to receive their degrees online, those from traditional in-class learning may find themselves at the top of the hiring pyramid. This gap could be further exacerbated by the accessibility of graduate education, which will also be a privilege of those able to afford in-class programs.
Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and consultant. The views expressed in this article are his own.