Today, our public colleges and universities are facing some of the toughest challenges they have ever encountered. The choices they make about how they deliver quality education to the millions of students who depend on them will determine whether our country will continue to be a global economic leader, or whether other countries will surpass us in postsecondary achievement.
Rising costs and reduced government funding in the wake of an economic recession have resulted in financial burdens that our state universities have never known before, and it is clear that funding is unlikely to return to pre-recession levels. These financial realities are compounded by tech-savvy students demanding a high-quality education when, where and how they want it. Today’s students live lives that are divorced from the static, brick-and-mortar reality of institutions built for 19thcentury economic circumstances, leading Ralph Wolff, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, to conclude, “Our business model is broken.”
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Addressing these issues in their entirety will take time, but today -- right now -- colleges and universities must embrace new digital and online delivery tools to make educational content available to degree-seeking students wherever they are, whenever they need it. Doing so will allow colleges and universities to raise revenue, increase access and contribute to America’s long-term competitiveness.
The 2010 U.S. Department of Education’s “Review of Online Learning Studies” found that students who took all or part of a course online perform better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. Similarly, a study conducted in the same year  by the internationally known scholars Mickey Shachar and Yoram Neumann that analyzed 20 years of research on the topic showed that in 70 percent of the cases, students who took distance-learning courses outperformed their counterparts who took courses in a traditional environment.
Evidence like this cannot be ignored.
This new technology-powered business model meets the needs of tech-savvy, far-flung, diverse student populations with minimal investment in infrastructure, since dormitories, laboratories and classrooms are not needed for this model to deliver real results.
Most degree-seeking individuals today no longer fit the traditional image of a college student who goes directly from high school to a four-year college or university, lives in a dormitory, eats in a dining hall, and walks from building to building for instruction.
In fact, the vast majority of today’s students fall outside of that paradigm. According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Education study, nontraditional students make up 70 percent of the undergraduate population. Nearly half of them are financially independent; 34 percent work full-time; and 25 percent have dependents of their own. Online degree programs would allow these students, and countless others, to take classes at their convenience while earning a degree from a program with the same admission and graduation requirements as their on-campus counterparts.
The technology is available to make this vision a reality now, and it should be adopted by public colleges and universities so that they can survive and thrive in the short term, while increasing access and revenue, as they take steps to address the other issues they face.
Michael Crow, the innovative president of Arizona State University, is already taking action to ensure that the university will continue to flourish in this digital future. In response to the “new normal,” Crow has called for a “new American university” where access trumps elitism and universities are measured by whom they include rather than by whom they exclude. He is also pushing his institution to reach large, diverse populations by offering online degree programs to those who are unable to attend on-campus classes.
Increasing the utilization of technology and online learning, Crow argues, brings down costs, increases access and leads to successful student outcomes. Arizona State’s goal is to incorporate 30,000 fully online students by 2020, a tenfold increase from today. In addition, thousands of on-campus students would supplement and expand their options by taking some of their courses online.
Arizona State is not alone.
In August, University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa laid out a broad framework  that focused in large part on increasing access and accountability. The “Framework for Advancing Excellence throughout the University of Texas System” was unanimously approved by the board of regents, receiving praise from both inside and outside the system, as well as a $243.6 million funding commitment for projects within the framework targeted at enhancing student outcomes and excellence across the system. We hope this is only the beginning of our public colleges and universities acknowledging, as Cigarroa did, that “We must change how we teach future generations of students.”
Setting up the technology needed to deliver high-quality instruction is daunting, but it is a challenge that can be easily managed using the right resources. We believe the answer is public/private partnerships, which was the approach taken by the University of Texas System when many of its campuses decided to start moving courses online. Partnerships like theirs allow the university to maintain control of the content, instructional materials, and admissions standards, while leaving the implementation to the experts.
While state institutions have been analyzing the situation, for-profit universities have seemingly exploded onto the education scene. They have appeared in markets underserved by our public colleges and universities and have launched technology solutions with only other for-profit universities as competition. The time is now for our state universities to capitalize on their proud histories and strong brands and reclaim a portion of that market share by providing broader access to high-quality instruction delivered by the same faculty members who teach on-campus classes.
Our public universities must adopt a new business model that will allow them to return to sound financial footing while addressing the variety of other challenges they now face. Online education may not remedy all that ails the system, but we are convinced that a good dose of it would go a long way.