Higher education is feeling the crunch of a global economic slowdown. From lower enrollment, to budget cuts, to tuition hikes, and dramatic programmatic changes, there is a growing crisis in colleges and universities across the U.S. The economic problems for higher education are sparked by higher costs to borrow money, a drop in donations, and a lower return on endowments (Huffington Post, 2008). There is also a catch-22 in effect as these situations cause tuition increases which, in turn, lead to lower enrollments, which necessitate further tuition hikes, etc.
One area not being negatively impacted by the recession and that is in fact bolstering some segments of the higher education marketplace is online learning. The public perception regarding the high cost of a traditional university education as well as the needs of many unemployed or underemployed workers to learn new skills is leading to a surge in enrollment in online programs. According to the Sloan Consortium, 75% of U.S. institutions have seen increased demand for online courses due to the recession. In addition, the report stated that there has been a 21% growth rate for online enrollment, compared to just 2% overall. Why the bonanza for online education programs? Some of the main reasons for the success of online education during the current recession are:
- Virtual learning is a good fit for adult learners – For people returning to college, whether looking to advance in a current position or to return to the workforce with new skills and credentials, online education provides a way to meet these objectives without sacrificing much in the way of their current daily responsibilities. Being able to complete coursework after the children have been put to bed or during downtime at or after work fits with the schedules of most people. The freedom from travelling to even a nearby university to take an evening class also adds to the appeal for those looking to continue their education later in life.
- Distance education provides an affordable option for struggling families – According to some estimates pursuing at-least some education online or at a community college can save students between $4,000 and $40,000 a year in tuition and related costs. With financial aid reductions at brick-and-mortar institutions affecting many students, looking for alternative routes to a degree are appealing to families who find themselves in financial trouble.
- Taking an online class provides marketable skills – Taking classes online provides two types of skills to enhance a resume: specific job-related knowledge and technical skills associated with working online. Both types can enhance a learner's marketability as long as he or she is savvy about portraying them on a resume.
- The positive perception of the value of online programs –The perception of online education is improving, particularly among employers, as a larger number of students embrace it. The main reasons for the positive perceptions are that online classes offer job-specific skills, and that learners must be self-motivated and disciplined. In fact, many employers are encouraging their employees to pursue online degrees by paying for their tuition through employer tuition reimbursement programs.
- Brick and mortar universities are embracing distance learning – As the distance learning model achieves popular acceptance, and the traditional model of education feels increasing pressure from all sides, universities are beginning to invest resources in developing their own online presence. This move, while motivated by a need to remain competitive, will serve to increase both the availability and credibility of online education in general.
- Anytime, anywhere education fits our technology-centered lifestyle – Finally, and though largely unrelated to the economic downturn, virtual learning is a good fit for the lifestyle and expectations of an Information-Age population. We expect to access education in the same ways we access all of our digital information; whenever and wherever we want to. Online education fulfills this need and, during times of economic stress, people are more likely to invest their money in something that not only has benefits, but also fits in with their daily routine.
In the long-term, it is unclear if online education is one more bubble due to burst, leaving scores of online educators and their institutions scrambling to rethink their future plans. However, given that the success of online education is largely a reaction to multiple societal pressures and not just a product of the economic downturn, it does not seem that this is a bubble that is likely to burst anytime soon. In fact, it might just be the dawn of a new era for more affordable and convenient higher education. Time will tell.