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College And University Presidents Aren’t Exactly Loving Their Own Online Programs

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.

A recently released annual survey of college and university Presidents found that, by wide margins, they are confident in the financial futures of their institutions. It will be great news if their confidence turns out to be justified.

Down in the survey though were important questions about how Presidents viewed their online courses and programs. Those results may surprise a few people.

When asked to simply vouch for the quality of three types of academic programs – fully online, hybrid or fully in-person – the answers were convincing.

For the full online variety, three-quarters (76%) rated them as merely “fair” or “good.” Just 21% rated their online courses and programs as “excellent,” the same percentage as those who said they were only “fair.” At public schools, a very healthy 81% of Presidents said their online programs rated as only “fair” or “good.” More Presidents of public institutions thought their own online programs were “fair” (23%), than “excellent” (16%).

That’s not even a tepid endorsement.

The scuplture “Untitled” by Joel Shapiro outside the Hood Museum of Art on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, U.S., on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021. Dartmouth College’s endowment returned 47% in the fiscal year that ended in June, the latest university to post some of the strongest investment gains in decades. Photographer: Bing Guan/Bloomberg

It looks even worse when stacked up against the responses for fully in-person programs. More than two-thirds of Presidents (67%) said their in-person classes were “excellent.” A nearly unanimous 99% said their in-person programs were either “good” or “excellent.” Seventy-three percent of private, non-profit school Presidents said their in-person offerings were “excellent.”

That’s what an endorsement looks like.

For the record, and to further confirm the politely negative view that college Presidents have of their own online wares, 86% of them rated their hybrid courses as either “good” or “excellent.” Looking across the columns at just the “excellent” scores – in-person options were given the top mark by 67% of President, hybrid options scored a 30%, fully on-line, 21%.

Predictably, some pundits saw these results as reflecting bias against online programs, instead of a true assessment of their quality. Some even said that Presidents preferred on-campus courses because they could make more money from parking and dining.

That’s upside down logic. If the answers to these questions were driven by income expectations, you’d expect the Presidents to hawk the online products. They are, after all, supposed to be cheaper and scale better and be unbound by the constraints of geography. Any number of marginal online schools can attest to the fact that, if you can cram students in and you’re willing to cut corners on teaching costs and add-ons such as exam security, online programs can be exceptionally profitable.

Which means that one of these two things has to be true. Either online programs aren’t actually cheaper to run and easy to scale or, when asked, the Presidents in the survey weren’t answering based on revenue considerations.

Doubly curious is the parallel criticism from some of the same people that when college and university Presidents expressed high confidence in their financial stability, they were essentially just cheerleading for their schools and ignoring realities. That cheerleading criticism doesn’t apply, it seems, when Presidents are pessimists about their own programs. In other words, when Presidents are upbeat, they’re foolish dilatants and when they’re downbeat, they’re biased or shrewdly calculating. Got it.

There is a simpler answer. Rather than playing a game of let-me-tell-you-why-you’re-wrong, let’s consider that college and university Presidents may know a little something about what they’re talking about.

It is possible that leaders of higher education institutions are confident because they see reasons to be. It’s also possible that there are good reasons they generally lack confidence in the quality of their own online programs. And if that’s the case at all, it may make you wonder why a few people are so invested in undercutting those informed assessments.

No matter their reasons, there are still plenty of open questions about online college such as whether they work at all and who it is they’re actually serving. Then there are the more existential questions about online learning at the college level – whether colleges can afford to have them. Or whether colleges can afford not to.

It’s way past to time to reasonably ask these questions, especially as Presidents and other higher education stakeholders continue to inch the share of online courses upward. As that happens, it’s worthy of a footnote that some of the people doing the expanding of online learning aren’t entirely sold on its quality.

Originally posted on Forbes on May 11, 2023.