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A drawing of students, split into two panels, to represent in-person and online education, respectively: on the left are three young adult students in a classroom and on the right is a single young adult student working at her computer in a kitchen, a cat at her feet.

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It is commonly accepted that the global COVID-19 pandemic accelerated online enrollment growth for all colleges and universities. But in the decade leading up to the pandemic, many institutions had adopted various strategies to grow their online student populations. Early adopters like the Universities of Illinois and Maryland and Colorado State, Pennsylvania State and Washington State Universities created “global campuses,” while other first movers at places like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Northwestern, Rice, and Syracuse Universities; and the University of Southern California opted to outsource online growth to companies known as online program managers.

Some institutions like Ohio State, Central Florida, Liberty and Southern New Hampshire Universities had leaders who “organically” grew their enrollments with an emphasis on scale, while others like Purdue University and the Universities of Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho and Massachusetts pursued a mergers-and-acquisitions approach by simply buying an online institution that had already scaled its enrollment. Some entrepreneurial-minded institutions even seized opportunities to provide workforce education by creating online learning partnerships with major corporations, like those between Walmart and the University of Florida or Starbucks and Arizona State University.

Despite the efforts of a few universities or consortia that eschew fully online programs—like the 10-member University of California system—the momentum definitely lies in the direction of hybrid models of enrollment comprised of both residential and online students. It is clear that for most colleges there is no going back to a world where all students are residential. But hybrid enrollments raise the very real specter of a return to the days of the false rhetoric of separate but equal, but now applied to the residential/nonresidential divide.

While equity is a top concern among colleges, there are numerous examples we could cite of virtual and residential students being treated quite differently. For example, we know that during the pandemic national media and education experts predominantly advocated for residential students impacted by college closures and essentially ignored the effect it had on the millions of students already attending college online. We also know from our own research that the retention rates for residential students are between two to eight times greater than rates for those attending online at the same institution. Sadly, we also can see from comparative examinations that academic inequalities persist for minoritized students whether they choose a residential or online format when attending the same institution. While some differences from residential experiences are intrinsic to virtual education, it’s not far-fetched to expect that online students paying tuition should enjoy the same basic educational benefits and opportunities as those who attend in person.

With many institutions embracing diversified forms of student enrollment, we believe that colleges and universities must be able to evaluate the experiences of all their students if they are going to truly embrace equity. To achieve this, leaders must ensure they collect data that are inclusive of all students in all modalities, examine the data for disparities in outcomes and strategically act to ameliorate any differences across student groups. While this might seem platitudinally obvious, our research revealed that not many colleges are presently engaging in such comparisons.

Achieving this baseline expectation means institutions must adapt their assessment and information systems accordingly. We offer three principles to guide colleges and universities toward establishing a fully hybrid approach that emphasizes a more inclusive understanding of and advocacy for all students—both residential and online.

  1. Inclusive Data Systems and Practices

University leaders have worked strategically over the past decade to integrate information systems from across organizational divisions and systems into centralized data hubs to help them answer the question “How effectively are we fulfilling our mission?” Now more than ever, university leaders have the capability to query information from a common repository that used to reside in disparate, siloed systems. But leaders today must pivot from integrated data systems to inclusive data practice.

An emphasis on inclusive data practice focuses on whether essential information includes all student types within the institution—residential, online or any other modality the institution offers for learning. This includes standard data (like student test scores and grades), innovative factors (like interactions in digital pedagogy or transfer student pathways), and distal outcomes (like first destination postgraduation). An inclusive mind-set toward student data means leaders must also improve institutional surveys by including online students in the sample and ensuring individual survey questions offer options that incorporate the online student experience. This inclusive approach toward information gathering represents the future of assessment and presents university leaders with an exciting challenge: What new questions can this approach answer?

  1. Equity Through Disaggregation

Primary assessment questions such as “Does this course or experience improve student outcomes?” have long been standard among educators. And for good reason—these seemingly get at the heart of understanding the value an institution contributes toward the learning and development of each student. Yet as we strive to equitably serve the increasingly diverse student communities within our institutions, such primary questions are no longer solely sufficient. Instead, institutions must always supplement primary questions by further asking, “Do these effects differ for one group versus another?”

While our first principle helps ensure data are gathered for all, more equitable assessment practices ensure disparities are also examined for all. The disaggregation of data based on characteristics such as race/ethnicity (country of origin), gender identity, sexual orientation or generation status enables institutions to better understand (for example) disproportionate trends in enrollment by major. These demographic data can be further combined with factors such as modality of instruction or receipt of need- and merit-based aid to allow for even more precise inquiries.

When examining the disparities that emerge, leaders might consider whether (for example) their college is proportionately financing institutional scholarships for its residential and online students, or whether any difference is a result of having invested in new facilities for residential students without offering corresponding support for online students. By expanding primary assessment questions to further include more equity-focused inquiries, college and university leaders can double down on a commitment to strengthening success for all students, whether they study in person, online or through another educational modality.

  1. Actions That Build Opportunities

The most challenging aspect of assessment is action—what to do with results? Effective university leaders have been able to close the assessment loop by using results to inform the development of targeted interventions, programs and tools to improve student outcomes. Looking forward, institutions must broaden their data-informed decision-making strategies to improve disparate outcomes for vulnerable and overlooked populations. In short, leaders must move from merely using data to close the assessment loop to, instead, build upward opportunities.

Leaders who focus on building upward opportunities always strive to open two doors, not one. The first door provides a student with equal access to collegiate experiences, whereas the second door (usually at the top of the stairs) creates the possibility of upward mobility. For example, based on assessment data, a university might increase financial resources for career services for all students. Increasing resources is a first-door action item that certainly closes the assessment loop and provides access. But on its own, this first-door approach fails to address quality differences in an important facet of career placement—the letters of recommendation for residential students (privileged by in-person relationships with faculty) and online students (limited by online interactions with adjunct faculty).

In contrast, when leaders adopt a second-door approach, they strategically work to create conditions necessary for online or other excluded students to cross the next threshold by facilitating upward mobility, (i.e., access at the next level). To help leaders differentiate between first and second doors, methods such as qualitative interviews can help shed light on how and why groups differ, while developing a logic model can be useful for depicting the relationship between program components and outcomes.

It is certainly time that assessment approaches toward student learning and student development move beyond their biased residential focus and more readily align with the present reality of higher education. Hybrid models of student enrollment demand innovative solutions to retention and completion that can only be derived from hybrid assessments.

Our own comparative examination of residential/online students attending the same institution serves as an exemplar for how assessment professionals, institutional researchers and scholars might go about conducting hybrid assessments, but it is only a beginning. We need additional work to understand residential/online differences in areas as diverse as financial aid, academic outcomes, institutional scholarships, technology support and career services. To construct and offer evidence-informed programming aimed at reducing disparities and promoting student development for all the student populations colleges serve, leaders must embrace more equitable assessment and information-gathering practices.

Joshua Travis Brown is a fellow in residence at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. He is also a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and instructor in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. Joseph M. Kush is an assistant professor in the Department of Graduate Psychology at James Madison University, as well as an assistant assessment specialist in the Center for Assessment and Research Studies.

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