Must Read Blog April 15, 2019

Online: Constructive or Destructive?

Much discussion of late has been focused on the place and practice of online education among traditional institutions. Earlier this year, in the pages of The New York Times, University of Michigan professor and public policy analyst Dr. Sue Dynarski highlighted research suggesting that fully online programs do a particular disservice to the neediest students. And more recently, The End of College author and New America vice president Kevin Carey penned a blistering and widely-read critique of traditional schools in the HuffPost Highline, suggesting that the inaction and greed of traditional schools had invited profiteers to enter the market and deny the promise of online delivery to make post-secondary education truly affordable.

At Tyton Partners, we have observed how the power of partnerships with the private sector can drive innovative changes and constructive progress in education. Technology-driven solutions, including digitally-delivered instruction, help solve some of higher education’s thorniest challenges. Without denying the important points raised by these critics and others, we offer some data below that suggests that whatever its other effects, online course consumption appears to correlate with some constructive trends in higher education.

Our sample of traditional schools suggests that among those institutions with the greatest percentage of student participants in partial or fully-online education, net prices are lower, cost of delivery is lower, and completions are higher. Not pictured, but also true is that Pell access is higher among institutions with greater exposure to online among two- and four-year publics as well as private not-for-profits. The picture holds up as well if highly-selective institutions are excluded from the analysis.

The data, of course, does not prove causation, nor does it specifically address Dr. Dynarski’s beef with fully (versus partial) online programs. It assumes (as Carey does in his book and article) that lower cost of delivery is positive, though some view this as suggestive of lower quality. It also has little to say about the role and influence of OPMs specifically on the evidently positive correlations (though we note that institutions engaged with OPMs have tended to experience higher levels of online enrollment growth and participation than their non-OPM peers). It merely notes, that however they got there, institutions characterized by greater levels of participation in online courses also happen to be leaders in affordability, cost, outcomes and access.