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In the wake of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 disease and the shutdown of in-person classes at colleges across the country, the U.S. Department of Education thankfully and belatedly followed the lead of other federal agencies and granted emergency authorization for colleges and universities to respond appropriately for the sake of students by moving classes online, among other measures.
With thousands of students at risk of having their learning interrupted, this is an overdue first step, but it is not enough for international students, prospective students or the schools themselves. The Department of Education, accreditors and state departments of higher education will need to take stronger steps that allow colleges and universities to launch online programs for a longer duration to preserve and ensure America’s higher education pre-eminence on the world stage.
By providing institutions with broad approval to operate online programs on a temporary basis and bypass the Department of Education’s traditional approval process, the department is giving colleges a lifeline to serve students who may be unable to enroll because they were studying abroad in affected countries, have fallen ill themselves or attend a campus -- like the University of Washington, Stanford University and Rice University -- that has ended its on-campus classes.
Allowing accreditors to waive their traditional review requirements so colleges could begin teaching online was prudent.
But this waiver applies only to current domestic students. It ignores international students, who are required to take their classes in person under the terms of their visas. The department will need to work with other federal agencies to solve this challenge.
It also ignores the vast numbers of prospective students who may be impacted by the spread of COVID-19 in the near future. Given the tenuous state of many colleges and universities in America, the department will need to do more.
For years, many colleges have allowed their expenditures to rise even as revenues have stagnated. Demographic headwinds portend fewer 18-year-old students in the years ahead. Some people are questioning the value of the college degree and looking to enroll in emerging alternatives to college. And the number of international students -- who often pay full price, as opposed to the highly discounted rates some domestic students pay -- has been falling amid unfriendly U.S. policies and increasing competition from Canada, Australia and others.
Forecasts of college closures show how fragile the current system is writ large. According to The College Stress Test, by professors who study higher education, nearly 10 percent of institutions face substantial risk and another 30 percent are destined to struggle. A conservative forecast by Edmit, which helps families make smarter financial decisions around college, suggests that over 10 percent of private nonprofit four-year colleges are at serious risk of failing in the decade ahead, and another 400 private colleges may close in the next 50 years.
The outbreak of COVID-19 could accelerate and exacerbate these challenges, as international students could drop out and prospective students may never enroll in the first place, further threatening institutions facing perilous enrollment and revenue numbers.
It’s conceivable that several thousand Chinese students, for example, who are currently studying in the United States, may not be able to return after they go home for summer break. More than 100,000 students are already stuck in China, for example, who intended to study in Australia. Over five million students study outside their home country across the globe.
Accreditors, state departments of higher education and the U.S. Department of Education have onerous and lengthy approval processes for a college to make substantial changes to an existing program, like moving it online. Hence the emergency guidance the department issued for current students.
But colleges and universities don’t have months to state definitively that they will offer programs online for international and prospective students. Students will choose to study elsewhere. Enrollments and revenue will decline, which will hurt schools, and the United States will miss out on the broader global opportunity to educate and build connections with thousands of students around the world.
The U.S. Department of Education, accrediting agencies and state departments of higher education must authorize emergency approvals for online degree programs so colleges can stand up operations and give prospective students the confidence to enroll.
Where there are worries about the value and quality of the new, rapidly created programs, regulators should require that the colleges commit to reporting audited student outcomes against consistent standards and put enrollment caps in place that are equivalent to the number of on-ground students that the government funds currently in these programs.
Regulators should not dither. They must support schools and students furthering their educations during these times of worry.