On March 10, Harvard University president Lawrence S. Bacow (who later tested positive for coronavirus) announced that instruction in residence would be suspended and that the university would be transitioning to virtual instruction until further notice. He directed students not to return to campus after spring recess. Many other colleges and universities quickly followed suit, and virtually overnight, a huge share of the nation’s roughly 15 million college students found themselves taking their spring classes online from home, using platforms such as Zoom.
At some point, the Covid-19 pandemic will come to an end, and most aspects of daily life will return to normal. Yet higher education may never be the same—our colleges and universities are now engaged in the largest, most radical, and most disruptive technology-enabled pedagogical experiment since Harvard’s founding in 1636.
With the exception of junior or community colleges, as well as some urban schools, the traditional paradigm of American higher education has been a four-year residential college experience featuring life on campus, with lectures, seminars, labs, dorms, social and cultural activities, institutionalized sports, and—of course—lengthy recesses. This traditional campus experience can be personally, socially, and intellectually transformative.
Yet it all comes at an increasingly unsustainable price: the average cost this academic year of tuition, fees, room and board, books, and supplies at four-year public and private institutions was $21,950 and $49,879, respectively. Elite universities can cost much more—Harvard, despite its $40 billion endowment, charges $69,607. Costs continue to escalate. Over the past three decades, the average price tag to attend a public four-year institution has more than tripled; it has more than doubled at private four-year schools. Outstanding student loan debt reached an all-time high of $1.41 trillion in 2019.
Broad access to quality higher education is critical to American global economic competitiveness and is a linchpin of our democratic society. Maintaining or enhancing that access means controlling costs, enhancing productivity, or increasing public and private subsidies. Moving instruction online offers a unique opportunity to reinvent the traditional residential campus model.
Online education has been around for at least a quarter-century. It is effective, flexible, and inexpensive, a proven tool for adult education and professional continuing education. Up to now, though, the elite educational establishment has kept it at arms-length. Administrative matters, academic scheduling, curricula, assignments, and even some assessments have moved online, but most students are still expected to attend lectures, labs, and seminars. This is one reason that, despite the proliferation of personal computing devices, the higher-education sector in general has not seen major technology-enabled productivity increases.
The coronavirus may change that. When the dust settles, millions of students will realize that they received some valuable education this spring, even though they were not on campus. Online education is not a perfect or easy substitute for the on-campus experience—but why not explore ways to combine the two delivery models?
Schools can leverage the impact and reach of the best (and most expensive) faculty by recording their popular large-class lectures and making them and related syllabi available online to students at any institution that pays an appropriate license fee, which would surely be less than full salary for celebrity faculty. There is no fundamental difference between this approach and using textbooks written by the same professors.
The ongoing experiment in distance learning will also challenge the traditional one-tuition-fits-all paradigm, which makes little or no distinction between the cost of teaching subjects that require expensive physical facilities—such as science labs or arts studios—and those that do not. Because online platforms are better suited to deliver a political-science survey course than a science lab or a studio in the performing or visual arts, large-scale online learning will inevitably accentuate the cost differential and thus the degree of de facto cross subsidization between academic disciplines.
There is no reason why a college education has to be paced along the traditional four years. For economic or other reasons, only 41 percent of first-time full-time college students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, anyway. Others choose an accelerated schedule by taking classes during the summer. Why not collaborate with employers to offer a lighter load of online courses designed to support and enhance summer internships? Alternatively, students could spend two or three years on campus and then have the option to earn their final credits online, while working. Or they could complete their basic distribution requirements online and arrive at campus ready to focus on higher-level or specialized learning.
Whether one believes that the purpose of higher education today is to develop a capable workforce or to inculcate youth with a particular set of cultural values, there is no question that the traditional campus model has become too expensive and inefficient. That reality, and the unplanned, large-scale experiment in off-campus instruction necessitated by the coronavirus, make it all but certain that online learning is poised for explosive future growth.