The changes universities have been waiting for

Changes to universities that education innovators have long sought are now being brought to the fore

As colleges and universities continue to struggle with pandemic-era challenges, a new reality is slowly dawning: This is no short-term crisis. Schools are trying to figure out how to teach and house students safely, how to provide faculty and staff safe places to work, and how not to go broke. Urgent short-term fixes are beginning to blend with long-sought improvements to the higher-education enterprise, and that’s all for the better.

More meaningful instruction is a critical part of the current conversation. Long-slogging innovators are now guiding colleagues suddenly desperate to figure out how online teaching can feel right—not just as a mode of transmitting information but also as a platform for real exchange of ideas, the creation of community, and stoking curiosity.

But it takes time to develop the rhythm of teaching outside the classroom, the lab, and out of the box. By the tens of thousands, talented and creative old-school teachers are now being led by COVID-19 beyond the digital shallows where most had lingered, and they’re learning about teaching and learning in hopeful new ways. Expect much celebration of new approaches and best practices in months to come, and a renaissance of vitality in the “classroom,” whatever shape that newly deconstructed thing might take.

Universities will be more affordable

At long last, the spiraling cost of higher education is being seriously addressed. Of course, in the short term, costs to operate colleges and universities are up. New tent-classrooms are popping up on campuses everywhere from Tulane University in New Orleans to The Ohio State University in Columbus, at no small cost. De-densified dorms and classrooms are spiking costs-per-student for facilities. And even where some costs have fallen because large groups of students are learning virtually, lost dormitory and food-service income is crushing school budgets.

In the face of these challenges, some schools are nevertheless focused on the long term, and have lowered direct costs for students: Seattle Pacific University has just reduced tuition for the 2021–22 school year by 25 percent. Well-endowed Williams College dropped current-year tuition by 15 percent, and scrappy Southern New Hampshire University will trim costs for the coming term by 60 percent.

Online instruction is becoming much more accepted

Beyond these headlines, though, there’s a new flexibility in the availability of courses sweeping through higher education that will make the most difference for students. For years, pioneering online programs at schools ranging from the University of Maryland to Harvard University have lived mostly in the old community- and continuing education divisions, such as Harvard’s Extension School. 

While sharing some amount of rigor and some amount of faculty involvement with their traditional campuses, these programs have for years been carefully distanced from the core brands, especially at the more elite schools, often due to concerns of associating undergraduates with the perception of lower-performing and older continuing-education students. But that’s no more. Online instruction has now, suddenly, been woven through just about every program at every university. The universities have no other choice.

WeWork 1 South Dearborn in Chicago, IL.

Administrators at schools ranging from the University of California system to Northeastern University in Boston are planning to give students more choice in blending online courses with on-campus instruction more or less forever. And that 200-person introduction to psychology course? It won’t be back (mostly due to health reasons), at least not in its traditional form. Expect a blend of online instruction, with courses potentially enrolling tens of thousands of students (a model validated by Coursera and its fellow massive open online courses, aka MOOCs), and smaller discussion sections IRL.

These changes will have a powerful effect on the affordability of higher education. For students, the cost has two sides to it: the money you pay, and the money you forgo. From the single parent, who can’t afford to hire childcare at twice the cost of tuition, to the would-be MBA student, who can’t afford to go two years without a substantial salary, students have been doing what management consultants call TCO math (that’s total cost of ownership) for decades, and finding too few ways to pay the cost of tuition while forgoing earnings and piling on new costs. 

The chance to take some or all of the courses in core degree programs at well-regarded universities (not at their edges but at their centers) while still being able to work will be a precious opportunity to millions.

And, of course, more affordability means more diversity, as more students stuck in the lower parts of the economic pyramid find the total cost of college degrees effectively falling. That’s a big win for most colleges and universities.

New ways of running universities

Schools ranging from University of Maryland to Purdue University in Indiana find that well-designed and supported online programs bring them thousands—indeed, tens of thousands—of new students. Many of the most successful programs employ a hybrid model that brings cohorts of students together to campus for a few days a term, as Northeastern has done well in many of its graduate programs. Universities are also partnering with local schools and coworking communities like WeWork to create learning zones close to clusters of students

WeWork Preston Center in Dallas, TX.

The University of London has had a broad and deep catalog of pure online offerings for almost 20 years now. As it’s pioneered this strategy, it has learned that local partners add precious value by providing a physical community to help students learn more, persist through their degrees, and build community. Expect more colleges and universities in the U.S. to follow that lead and find a better future in the process.

Peter Temes is founder and president of The Institute for Innovation in Large Organizations. He has been the president of the Antioch New England Graduate School, dean and campus chief executive at Northeastern University, and a faculty member at Harvard University. He is the author of several books and has written about education for The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Education Week.

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