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SAN DIEGO – Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Morehouse College offered fewer than nine online courses.  “Many of our faculty were resistant,” Morehouse President David Thomas said recently.

Yet as the virus forced learning online, the private, historically black college for men in Atlanta quickly changed course – and now offers entire degrees online, including a full-time option and classes for those who dropped out and want to finish. Morehouse professors spent the summer learning to teach online.

“As leaders of colleges like Morehouse, we have to think of technology not as an adjunct to our infrastructure but core to it, and I think that will permeate forever,” Thomas told a packed audience at a session on the future of higher education during the annual ASU + GSV summit earlier this month. “There are good and great years ahead, not without challenge but with huge opportunity.”

Digital alternatives at residential colleges and other new ways of delivering education have exploded since the pandemic forced schools to shut down in March 2020, forcing a reckoning in a sector already reeling from enrollment declines, rising tuition and unmanageable, often hidden student debt.

Older students have become an increasingly important market for universities and colleges. More than 35 million Americans over 25 have some college credits, but never got degrees.  

Covid “was such a boon to our industry,” said Anant Agarwal, founder and CEO of the online course platform EdX, which has more than 160 university partners and more than 2,000 free courses. “This move to online learning is here to stay. We’ll never rubber-band back to the old days.”

Changing workforce needs and an increasingly diverse population, including many low-income students, are all boosting the creation of alternative pathways into higher education, at a time when the overall proportions of students who are Black, Native American or Hispanic are either falling further behind academically or doing little more than staying the same.

Related: Colleges and universities are outsourcing services to for-profit companies

So it was hardly a surprise to see the usual crowds of investors, industry leaders and entrepreneurs out in force at the summit, touting certifications, credentials and new partnerships. In a sign of changing times, though, the agenda included an array of early childhood experts, along with many four-year college presidents and educators.

“The conversations we are having at the highest level at the best universities in the world are all about digital transformation,”  said Chip Paucek  CEO and founder of 2U, the for-profit ed tech company that recently merged with EdX.

There were also heightened concerns that higher education must do a better job serving diverse racial and ethnic groups as well as those from low-income backgrounds, who tend to be woefully underrepresented in degree attainment. “Not every group in our society has equal access to what will be a quality education in the future,” said Ruth V. Watkins, president of Strada Impact, a national social impact organization.

Through it all, rising Covid numbers and fear of another disruptive, disappointing year on college campuses provided a backdrop for the uncertainty ahead. The rise of the dangerous Delta variant may force classes online at some institutions had been committed to an in-person experience.  Outbreaks are continuing at many large public universities that are not enforcing mask mandates because their states have banned them.

The future of higher education and the state of child care were big topics at the ASU-GSV summit in San Diego. Credit: Liz Willen for The Hechinger Report

So, like it or not, here comes more online education – exactly what many of the students I spoke with during the pandemic didn’t like and don’t want.

At residential campuses, some told me they barely left their dorm rooms; others said their classes never even meet on Zoom and amounted to little more than independent study. Two out of three first-year students said they’d had academic challenges, including lack of motivation, trouble retaining information learned online and difficulty understanding concepts without “hands-on” experiences, a new ACT survey confirms.

No wonder some colleges are scrambling to give extra support and attention to sophomores, who lost a year of in-person living and learning. The last thing higher education needs is even more  skepticism about the worth of a college degree.

“The conversations we are having at the highest level at the best universities in the world are all about digital transformation.”

Chip Paucek, CEO and founder of 2U, an ed tech company

Some 46 percent of parents now say they would prefer not to send their children directlyto a four-year college after high school, a recent Gallup survey found.

That’s why digital alternatives enabling students to gain skills and workforce credentials that lead directly to jobs and careers “should be music to the ears of all those pushing new forms of education,”  Scott Pulsipher, president of the online Western Governors University, told an eager summit crowd.

And for some people, shorter, cheaper and faster alternatives do make sense. The job market desperately needs a more educated workforce, and older students have become an increasingly important market for universities and colleges. More than 35 million Americans over 25 have some college credits, but never got degrees.

Related: Universities that are recruiting older students often leave them floundering

There’s also plenty of room for an embrace of technological alternatives and better online learning at more traditional schools such as the 150-year-old Morehouse, which strikes me as not only inevitable, but long overdue – and essential to their survival.

That’s a viewpoint stressed by the scholar Arthur Levine, who along with Scott Van Pelt is the author of the upcoming book The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past Present and Uncertain Future.

Like the prophetess Cassandra, their book is filled warnings for the future, and predicts that growing competition from new providers could ultimately shutter non-distinctive four-year colleges, especially in the Midwest and New England, a trend that is already under way.

Related: Hundreds of colleges and universities show financial warning signs

Yet when Levine spoke with college presidents during the pandemic last spring, “for the most part what they told me was they can’t wait to get past this and back to 2019,” he said during a panel I moderated at the summit. “And that is not going to happen. I think every institution in the country will be changed.”

And while it may be scant comfort to students waiting to see if they’ll again be staring at screens instead of in classrooms this fall, Levine also believes the future holds vast improvements for online education that will make it far more appealing.

“When we look back at what online education looks like now, it is going to seem primitive,” he said. “We are going to see that become more and more interactive, [and we’ll see] more virtual and artificial reality. They’ll be able to re-create whole campuses.”

Competition will also shake up community colleges, which are experiencing dramatic enrollment declines, even as some politicians push to make them tuition-free. 

Related: It’s just too much why students are abandoning community colleges in droves

Students can now instead opt for alternatives, such as Google certificates in information technology from Coursera for $59 a month, Levine noted — “a cheap, low-cost, prestigious credential. We are going to see all kinds or organizations get into the business of education that were never there before.”

The most prestigious U.S colleges are also getting reassuring news in the pandemic, boasting of  vast application increases – especially those with the ability to offer generous scholarships and financial aid. Yet there simply aren’t enough of them to go around, and such schools still depend heavily upon students who can afford annual estimated costs that cantop $82,000 a year.

“Not every group in our society has equal access to what will be a quality education in the future.” 

Ruth V. Watkins, president, Strada Impact

Levine acknowledged that such trends could split higher education into two separate but unequal systems – one offering liberal arts and all kinds of subjects and the other online, cheaper, faster and more accessible. “There is a danger the former will be attended by the wealthy, the latter by the less wealthy,” he said.

Bridget Burns, founding executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, talked me down from drawing sweeping conclusions, however. She’s a big fan of having colleges work together on joint solutions, along with state and federal policy makers, to improve lagging graduation rates.

“The vastly different populations higher education serves means it’s hugely important to avoid wide generalizations about what works and doesn’t,” Burns said. “It’s very clear there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The student experience is very nuanced.”

Burns also countered any narrative that pandemic online learning has failed students unilaterally. “For many students, it [online learning] felt like the first time that college worked for them,” she said.

It’s one reason why the different higher education factions need to work together, Burns said. “The faster we get out of our own way and start listening and sharing what works, the faster we’ll understand how to do this well.”

This column about the future of higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education journalist, has led the award-winning Hechinger Report staff as editor in chief since 2011. A sought-after moderator of education conferences and events, Willen also writes...

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