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Online Education Is Booming, but Colleges Risk Slipping on Quality | This Week in Admissions News

12 AUG 2022

The world of college admissions is ever-changing and for students with top university ambitions, it’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest developments. This week, a survey of over 300 university officials found that the majority plan for long-term growth in online education, but few regularly evaluate the quality of their programs. Check back next week to see what’s new and noteworthy in university admissions!


Online Education Is Booming, but Colleges Risk Slipping on Quality

A survey of more than 300 college officials found that the majority of US universities intend to fully integrate online education by 2025. It seems, however, that few regularly evaluate the quality of their courses.

Online learning is becoming an increasingly important part of higher education, and institutions are continuing to integrate it into their programs as its importance grows.

Almost two years of widespread online accommodations to meet the demand of the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the higher education landscape. A majority of chief online officers (COOs) surveyed believe that online learning will continue to grow over the next couple of years, but at a slower pace than in recent years.

In the report by Quality Matters and Encoura's Eduventures, a higher education market research firm, more than 90 percent COOs expect traditional-age undergraduates on their campuses to take hybrid courses by 2025. In comparison, just before the pandemic, only 20 percent of these undergraduates were taking hybrid classes.

To guide this rapid transition towards online education, 96 percent of college officials said they had adopted "quality assurance" standards. These standards provide faculty members with tools to make online learning intuitive, accessible, and engaging for their students. For instance, instructors may be expected to provide timely, regular feedback on assignments, align activities with a course's learning objectives, and post transcripts of all video lectures.

Despite many institutions adopting quality assurance standards for online courses and programs, evaluating compliance with those standards remains a challenge. Furthermore, despite the large number of studies that investigate what constitutes quality teaching and learning, the concept of "quality" is not universally defined. The authors of the report acknowledge that colleges' quality standards vary considerably in terms of scope and enforcement.

Only 34 percent of respondents indicated that their standards included analyzing student-learning outcomes, such as postgraduate job placements and salaries.

The report's co-director, Richard Garrett, chief research officer at Edeventures, is not surprised, since universities are just starting to collect this kind of data, “never mind having standards around it.”  Nevertheless, it will be helpful for colleges and faculty to show results when promoting their courses in a saturated, competitive market.

“If a school is ultimately saying you should enroll in this program because it leads to an outcome, but they don’t really have a handle on that [outcome] … That’s a weakness,” Richard shared.

There were also noticeable differences in opinions among college officials about the need to evaluate online courses. In spite of the large majority having quality standards, only 42 percent reported that they regularly use them when evaluating new or highly revised online courses.

According to the report, colleges risk obscuring academic standards in their online courses and programs without evaluations, and missing out on the chance to use their resources on data-driven remediation and support. “Without evaluating whether adopted quality standards are met,” the report states, “there is no true quality-assurance plan in place.”

Here are some of the report's other noteworthy findings:

  • Institutional commitment is key. With online learning becoming more central, more than half of respondents estimate that institutional priorities will have to be restructured as a result.
  • Support services are necessary for students. Online student-facing resources will also need to scale up in order to serve a new cohort of virtual learners as online education increases. Over the past year, mental health services have seen the highest growth.

Other top stories in admissions news this week:

  • The Los Angeles Times reports the University of California's 9 undergraduate campuses accepted a record number of California first-year students for fall 2022, while significantly narrowing entry to out-of-state and international applicants. The UC system admitted 85,268  first-year applicants from California (a 1.2% increase over last year) while offers to out-of-state applicants declined by 19% and offers to international students decreased by 12.2%.
  • Bloomberg reports that in sharp contrast with last year's 35-year high of 27% growth in US university endowments, this year endowment investments have seen their greatest decline since the 2008 global financial crisis with a median loss of 10.2% before fees. The story notes that the largest funds — those with assets of more than $500 million — "fared substantially better, with a slight gain of 0.9%." It further points out that the difference between the wealthiest colleges and others "demonstrates the widening gap among endowment sizes and resources within higher education."
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education writes, with two months left before the Supreme Court hears arguments for "the most-watched legislative challenge in higher education", dozens of groups filed briefs explaining why Harvard and UNC should be allowed to continue their use of affirmative action in admissions decisions. The article highlights three key takeaways from the briefs: (1) Racial segregation in schools persists; as such, colleges should be able to ensure that the classes they admit are diverse. (2) Business and government leaders want colleges to admit diverse classes to help them hire diverse workforces. (3) Briefs opposing the use of affirmative action argue that the Supreme Court has an opportunity to correct past wrongs, calling the practice unconstitutional and claiming it's "outright racial balancing".
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