Members of the Iowa Board of Regents, from left, David Barker, Greta Rouse and Nancy Boettger, listen to a presentation by Barbara Wilson, president of the University of Iowa, during a meeting Thursday at the Levitt Center for University Advancement at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
IOWA CITY — Before the pandemic rocked higher education, colleges and universities across the country were already facing a growing list of concerns — including dwindling state funding, questions about course delivery and an impending enrollment “cliff” among high school graduates pursuing higher education. .
In the aftermath of the pandemic, these challenges remain – and in some cases, they are more prevalent. But COVID-19, with all the pain it has brought, could have brought to the fore a potential solution for higher education: online education.
“The Online Degree and Micro-Credential Market is Expected to Reach $117 Billion in 2025, at an CAGR of 17%, Based on Revised Expectations During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” According to a New “Distance Education and Digital Delivery”. A report from the Iowa Board of Regents released last week after it commissioned Huron Consulting to study the market and opportunities for expanded online education, also sometimes referred to as “distance education.”
After Huron distributed its report internally to regents in October, the board appointed a 12-member “distance education task force” — including University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson, representatives of Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, as well as two regents.
This task force — in hopes of harnessing distance learning to address enrollment issues, funding declines, workforce demands, and student needs — produced a series of recommendations. , which the board approved last week.
One recommendation would have public institutions design a “pilot general education course sharing opportunity,” allowing students enrolled at one institution to take online courses at the other two regent universities.
The task force also advised regents to support faster expansion of new online offerings “with an initial focus on offerings for graduates and professionals” – a space the report shows is thriving.
While Iowa reported a 2% increase in the number of students taking online courses only between fall 2015 and fall 2019, the Illinois system reported a 94% increase; Wisconsin reported a 37% jump; and Indiana reported a 27% increase during this pre-pandemic period.
“With the exception of the University of Minnesota system, the proportion of students from the regent institutions (Iowa) taking only distance education courses was lower than that of all peers, which means that students remotely only are an area for improvement,” the report said.
Although Iowa’s regent campuses saw less distance education growth from 2015 to 2019 than its peer university systems, nearly 35% of its students took at least one online course in fall 2019. , making it an obvious place to prioritize amid the overall drop in listings.
“The growth rate of students enrolled in distance education programs (fully online or blended) from 2015 to 2019 significantly exceeded the growth rates of total enrollment,” according to the report.
Total combined enrollment at Iowa’s three public universities fell 13% from a peak of 80,064 in fall 2016 to 69,848 in fall 2021. Meanwhile, between fall 2016 and fall 2019, the percentage of Iowa college students who took some or all of their courses online jumped 54%. from 16,971 to 26,206 – a percentage that has continued to rise thanks to COVID-19, which has prompted many students to consider online education for the first time.
“COVID has expanded the market,” according to the Regents report. “Thirty-three percent of prospective and enrolled students said they had not considered fully online learning before the pandemic, and 59 percent said the pandemic had influenced their decision to consider online learning. line.”
Online Education Professionals
Part of the reason online education presents a possible solution to budgetary problems and dwindling high school graduates is that it broadens the pool of prospects for non-traditional students, like working professionals, while reducing the costs.
Other strategic benefits of growing campus distance education offerings, according to the report, include:
- Attract more of the growing proportion of low-income students;
- Increase revenue through increased enrollment while reducing costs “via operational efficiency”;
- Stay competitive with traditional universities and new Internet-based offerings;
- Keep up with rapidly changing job skills within Iowa and surrounding communities;
- And deal with rising costs to serve students on campus.
“Distance education may present an opportunity for regent institutions to increase revenue through increased enrollment and reduce costs through operational efficiencies,” according to the report.
The council’s original contract for Huron to conduct the distance education study, signed in July 2021, paid it no more than $195,100, plus expenses of up to $19,510. An addendum to that contract in December to help facilitate working group meetings paid the consultant an additional $30,000.
Huron’s work included interviews with stakeholders, including each regent and representatives from each campus in Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls. Through these interviews, Huron identified key drivers for the expansion of distance education – such as increased enrollment and revenue – and key target audiences – such as graduate students and lifelong learners. life.
“Both the council and the governing institutions cited reaching new audiences and increasing revenue and enrollment as motivators for the expansion of distance education and digital university delivery,” according to the report. .
Disadvantages of online education
Huron also identified barriers including initial investment and current systems discouraging online expansion.
“Academic units also believe that to grow online offerings, there needs to be a reallocation of faculty and staff support resources away from other mission-critical activities,” according to the report, which found disagreement. between the regents and the universities on the role the council should play.
“The council and governing institutions agree on the motivations for expanding distance education, but differ on the role the council should play in expansion,” according to the Huron report. “The council is looking to take a more active role and the regent institutions want to pursue their own approaches within the confines of a high-level strategy set by the regents.”
Ultimately, according to a regent summary of the Huron Report, “collaboration among universities with new ‘systems’ approaches that capture synergies and efficiencies has become most likely to enable the kind of strategic enrollment growth online that the council is looking for”.
A systems approach highlights the regent thought that distance education is not just about singular changes to attract more students, but about participating in the reinvention of higher education, which allows students to follow more easily courses on different campuses while fundamentally reducing campus costs.
Cross-campus collaboration could also mean more public-private partnerships – like Starbucks, IBM, Amazon and Walmart have done with institutions like Ohio State University, Arizona State University, George Mason University and others.
“The rise of corporate partnerships has changed the education landscape as companies seek to partner with institutions of higher education to develop career-specific curricula to meet their labor needs,” according to the report.
Challenges Iowa’s regent universities will need to overcome to transition to “thinking and behaving like a system,” according to the consultant, include the threat the “system” poses to unique campus identities, the administrative membership that ‘it requires and politics.
“Aligning distance education goals with state needs may require balancing political dynamics,” according to the report. “Several peer systems (and others in the market) have noted that formal, system-wide efforts to expand distance education that rely on the advocacy and promotion of a given political party can impede the long-term viability of formal expansion efforts.”
The path to follow
For now, the board and its public universities are focusing on several task force recommendations to expand distance education offerings:
- Review the charge and activities of its longstanding Council for State Extension, Continuing and Distance Education and establish new goals;
- streamlining university and regent policies for online program approvals to “enhance institutions’ ability to respond to market demand”;
- Identify financial incentives that support the expansion of online programs;
- Develop a statewide online marketing center promoting its universities’ inventory of online offerings;
- And design a pilot program for sharing general education courses allowing students at one institution to take online courses from one of the other two universities.
Regent David Barker, in his response to the full report last week, warned against bringing in too much change too quickly.
“There are so many changes in this area that are happening very quickly,” he said. “We have learned so much over the past two years. We have to follow that. But we must also avoid running after fads.
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