Monday, April 07, 2014

Catching the Online Waves

Last updated: Monday 4/7/14 @2:29 pm
HBCUs missed the last decade's first wave of black interest in online programs (2001 to 2010). Those of us who think that HBCUs not only made significant contributions to black higher education in decades past, but are uniquely positioned to make comparably significant contributions in coming decades must ensure that HBCUs do not miss the far larger second wave. The first wave was part of an American high tide; the second will be part of a global tsunami.

A. First Wave
The disproportionately large share of black students (at least 30 percent) enrolled in the online programs offered by for-profit institutions powered the rapid expansion of these programs until their bubble burst under the critical scrutiny of Senator Harkin's Subcommittee, the GAO, and the Secretary of Education. The for-profits surfed the first wave by recruiting large numbers of black students, by charging high tuition, by inducing students to sign up for large federally guaranteed loans to pay the high tuition, and by doing all of the above in a dubious manner. Many students were subsequently unable to repay their loans because few were able to complete their studies and/or were unable to find jobs after graduation that paid high enough salaries.

Some observers declared that black students should have enrolled in online programs offered by HBCUs. I strongly disagreed for two reasons:
  • First, only a few HBCUs offered online degree and certificate programs during the last decade; and their range of offerings did not cover the full scope of student interest. In other words most HBCUs were not equipped to satisfy the huge black demand for online programs that suddenly appeared. Indeed, this gap between HBCU supply and black student demand still exists.
  • More importantly, the vast majority of the black students who enrolled in programs run by the for-profits should not have enrolled in any programs that were 100 percent online, no matter who ran the programs. Why not? Because most online programs could not provide effective learning experiences for students who did not have strong time management skills, a high capacity for working alone for long periods, higher than average motivation, and a firm grasp of math and language fundamentals. This profile excluded a larger percentage of black students than white students, especially the at-risk students that HBCUs continued to enroll as part of their historic mission and legacy. These students would have been better served by traditional face-to-face programs and/or by blended programs ... if they could afford the rising tuition.

B. Second Wave
Unfortunately the traditional model is broken. Face-to-face courses are labor-intensive; hence they provide few opportunities for the kind of productivity gains that would substantially reduce their costs of operation and thereby reduce the tuition required to cover their rising costs. And while blended courses show promise of providing more effective learning experiences, they have limited prospects for cost/tuition reduction. There is, therefore, an ineluctable drift to 100 percent online because online holds the greatest promise of providing the kinds of substantial cost reductions that will enable higher education to become and remain an affordable opportunity for the vast majority of traditional and non-traditional students in this country and throughout the world.  (Think "competency based programs" that utilize self-paced online modules.)

The perceived inevitability of online will propel the second wave. The surviving for-profits will prepare for this wave by cleaning up their acts in hopes of gaining the largest possible share of the emerging trillion dollar global market for online programs. On the other hand, large public colleges and universities that developed extensive catalogs of online courses and programs during the previous decade will strive to capitalize on their previous investments by greatly increasing the scale of their enrollments. We should expect continued announcements of partnerships between large public institutions and well-capitalized online service providers who will carry a large share (all?) of the high costs of the marketing and recruitment campaigns in exchange for a negotiated share of the tuition revenue from the students who enroll in these programs

We should also expect that a disproportionate share of enrollments in the second wave will again be black and for the same reasons that enrollments in the first wave were disproportionately black.  Unfortunately, there is little reason to expect that most black students will fare any better in second wave programs than they did in the programs offered by the free-wheeling for-profits in the first wave ... unless:
  • HBCUs assume a national leadership role in online programs for black students by forming "Virtual HBCUs" -- strategic alliances wherein member HBCUs attract large black enrollments by pooling their limited resources in order to develop comprehensive arrays of online programs;
  • Virtual HBCUs develop online innovations that are demonstrably more effective for most black students than current practices. (See Community Organizing for Academic Innovation for an extensive discussion of this perspective.)

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