Expanding access to higher education: online learning, improving transition from 2-year to 4-year institutions

Two good articles on higher education were published today. One theme they share: we need to focus on increasing access while keeping tuition affordable.

In the Columbian, Don Brunell writes of the success being experienced by WGU Washington (that’s Western Governors University).

The university serves working adults and the 950,000 state residents who have started — but not finished — their college degrees. The average age of the WGU Washington student is 36. Students come from urban, suburban and rural areas.

WGU Washington uses competency-based instruction that measures learning rather than time in a classroom. In other words, you need to know the information thoroughly before you move to the next level. It is a pass-fail system with no letter grades. The important thing is the student masters his or her work, so potential employers know they can do the job.

WGU is clearly part of the solution. RTWT

And in the Seattle Times, Eric Spangenberg – a dean at WSU leaving to go to California – writes of the importance of making sure community college students make the jump to a four-year degree. Here’s the challenge:

Nationally, more than 80 percent of students entering community colleges say they eventually want to transfer to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 10 percent do so within six years.

While disappointing, this statistic points to great opportunity for Washington. Capitalizing on this opportunity, however, requires greater investment in four-year institutions and accountability to get more students transferred from two-year colleges.

The issues are complicated and some of what Spangenberg suggests will be controversial. But the debate cannot be postponed. Resource constraints are real; maximizing outcomes is essential.

A common barrier to innovation is hesitancy in changing our view of what constitutes a college experience. In the future — indeed, even now — institutions will not be collections of buildings, but a combination of those fixed assets along with innovative people using technology to meet students where they are, delivering relevant and affordable educational opportunities. Efficiencies are obvious: It takes the same number of faculty to deliver the same degree program online to 10 times the number of face-to-face students.

Instead of constructing unnecessary buildings at locations around our state, devote more intellectual and financial resources to developing new models for offering degree programs. Perhaps blended programs mixing face-to-face with online delivery make the most sense moving forward for many degree programs, as WSU is developing in Everett.

Additional teaching facilities not geared toward distance delivery or scalability are simply untenable investments.

His is a thoughtful assessment, worth reading in its entirety and discussing with colleagues and policymakers.