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How will colleges and universities adapt to the accelerating numerical decline of traditional college-age cohorts?

Projections by Nathan Grawe indicate that within seven years, the pool of high school graduates is likely to shrink by 15 percent. The news is particularly grim for schools in the Northeast and the eastern half of the Midwest, with expected declines of 20 to 25 percent.

When demographic headwinds are combined with other trends, such as the continued decline in public funding and the rising levels of institutional costs and the growth of new online competition, the future economic viability of a great many individual colleges and universities seems to be in doubt. While the postsecondary ecosystem is likely to adjust, the transitions driven by macro demographic/economic/policy forces will be painful for a large number of individual colleges and universities.

Where does the field of digital learning fit into the challenging future of large numbers of colleges and universities? What role might campus digital learning leaders working at the school most impacted by these trends play in contributing to the economic resilience of their institutions? What role can digital learning people play if they are asked to sit at strategic institutional tables?

There are likely many areas that experts in digital learning can contribute to planning around institutional economic resilience. Here are two.

No. 1: Transitioning Master’s Degrees From Residential to Online

Every school with master’s degrees is at some stage of process in moving these programs online. Save for a very small number of elite programs, the model of full-time residential master’s is in decline. The question appears to be not if master's programs will move online, but how they will do so.

If institution leaders are bringing in campus digital learning experts to implement already-made decisions on the online transition, they are bringing them in too late. Campus digital learning experts should be included early in discussions on the future of graduate programs. This problem once again raises the issue of OPMs and their role in moving campus programs online.

Whatever the role an OPM might play at a particular school, we’d suggest having representatives of online program management companies speak with campus leaders without digital learning folks in the room is a mistake. OPM companies can be very persuasive. It is entirely possible for a course of action to be agreed upon before the expertise of local digital learning folks are consulted.

Campus digital learning leaders will be able to evaluate the resources, options and dependencies involved in moving master's programs from residential to online.

It may be that the best scenario is to scale up the transition to online graduate degree programs using existing local resources and people. Schools that partner with OPM providers can get themselves in trouble if they try to scale too quickly.

A recent story in the Los Angeles Times on the problems now faced by the University of Southern California as a result of rapid growth of online master's programs with the OPM 2U should serve as a cautionary tale. It is not that the OPM option is always a bad one. In some cases, working with a partner makes sense. Instead, the OPM decision should not drive the planning to transition to go online. Working with a partner is one way to achieve this online transition, but there are other methods.

Campus digital learning experts are in the best position to evaluate the pros and cons of different approaches to moving to online programs at their institutions, and to present those scenarios as options to campus leadership.

No. 2: Blending Undergraduate Programs

Too often, online and residential education are positioned as opposing options. The reality is that residential and online learning exists on the same spectrum. Asking if a program should remain residential or go online is really the wrong question. A better question to ask is how the school might best serve the needs of its students while playing to its strengths and aligning with its overall mission.

The goal should never be to go online. Rather, the goal should be to create programs that create shared value for the students and the school. Getting to shared value will often require that schools move away from the educational status quo. Moving from a purely residential model to one that integrates elements of online learning can address many of the challenges that today’s students are navigating.

Many students still want the intimacy and structure of face-to-face learning. But these same students can also thrive in environments where some of the instructional interactions are moved online. Sitting in a physical classroom for three hours a week over an entire semester may be difficult for students with other work and family commitments. Undergraduates, both traditional and nontraditional, may thrive best in a mixed model, one that integrates intensive face-to-face coaching and support with flexible online options.

Shifting from residential to blended learning will also free up classroom and lab space, enabling schools to schedule more face-to-face classes at times when students want to be on campus. It may be that the most demographically and economically challenged colleges and universities will need to conserve resources by dramatically reducing the number of classroom buildings that they maintain and support. Shrinking the physical footprint of a university does not mean that the number of students that the school serves must decline. Or even that the school must back away from a commitment to providing an intimate, rigorous and supportive residential educational experience.

Instead, the sort of face-to-face interaction that faculty and students enjoy can evolve. Residential learning can become more intense, while the overall instructional mix can transition to one that balances the advantages of face-to-face and online learning.

Whatever the path forward, campus digital learning leaders should be key partners in thinking of ways that undergraduate education can be reimagined. The coming demographic reckoning will force schools to rethink how they design and run all of their educational programs, including existing residential undergraduate degrees.

Digital learning experts should be at the table in exploring all options for maintaining institutional mission alliance with economic resiliency in the age of scarcity.

If you are a digital learning expert, what role do you play in this conversation?

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