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In the Nation's Interest

Online or Brick-and-Mortar Learning? The Questions that Matter Most

For some time people from various quarters (policy-makers, academics, employers) have been wringing their hands over whether or not online education delivers good outcomes.  Proponents are adamant that it does, and given the challenges facing higher education, see online as the way of the future. Detractors, on the other hand, are firmly rooted in their contention that it can’t possibly succeed and will never equal or exceed instruction delivered in a traditional classroom setting.

The latest assessment to energize the debate comes from economist Caroline Hoxby in a working paper titled, ‘The Returns to Online Postsecondary Education.’  According to Hoxby, taxpayers are unlikely to "recoup their investment in the form of higher future tax payments by former students.”  Many have criticized this finding while panning the paper’s methodology as “deeply flawed” and its overall analysis, in one commentator’s words— “a hot mess”.  As the president of regionally accredited Kaplan University (KU), where the majority of our roughly 32,000 students study totally online, you might guess where I come out on this paper’s conclusions.

Allow me to submit that the research question itself as posed in the study is generally meaningless. Here’s why.

Conceptually, online education is not monolithic, as there are many different ways to teach online as there are to teach in traditional classroom settings.  Adaptive learning, a video of a ‘sage on the stage’, live webinars, group work, interactive question and answer sessions, and asynchronous discussion boards are among the many options available.

How well students learn depends on the interaction among the faculty member, the student, the content, the support system and the technology.  All five are causally intertwined.  The technology may be better for one student than another. Certain faculty may be better for one student than another. The content may be more enticing for one student than another.  And so forth.  It’s not really all that different from the choices first-time full-time students make when they decide between a major public university and a small liberal arts college.

Deconstructing what is necessary and what is sufficient for a good learning experience is challenging, to say the least.  Adults learn differently and have other priorities than traditional first-time full-time students.  When KU studied interventions related to a growth mindset, including with researchers at Stanford University’s Project for Education Research that Scales (PERTS) as part of our Research Pipeline program, we concluded that online, adult learners may face unique and varied challenges that mindset interventions alone cannot address.  We also found that adults are not nearly as malleable in the modification of that mindset as 18-22 year olds are.  It stands to reason as they have families to raise, jobs to tend to and bills to pay.  A two-hour intervention is not as meaningful when all those other responsibilities and concerns are on your mind at the same time.

When the assessment of value rises to the level of return on educational investment, the calculus is even more complex.  Regardless of the modality in which they were taught, nurses earn more than childcare workers and medical assistants. Similarly, the difference in average earning potential for a music major and a lawyer is vast—much greater than the difference in return on investment between online and ground.  Does that mean we should give up on music education or just offer it to those for whom return on investment is not important?

There simply is no benefit to comparing the value of the online and ground modalities to each other at the level of modality, nor is there any value to assessing return across the modality.

So what are the right questions to ask, consider, debate and study to improve outcomes that universities are tasked with delivering?

There are a few on which my University is intently focused, starting with learning.

“Do our students learn what they need to (and what employers want) in order to be successful in their chosen fields?"

It is easy to evaluate learning in licensure programs.  Do the students pass the licensure exam?  It’s also important in disciplines for which there is no licensure.  For example, at KU we contract with Peregrine Academic Services to conduct an annual study of our business school students to measure their mastery in various degree programs.  Students are tested on selected business-related subjects and compared to aggregate pools of students from other participating institutions.  Our students do very well.  They not only perform better, on average, than students at other accredited online, campus-based, and blended programs, they also show a greater percentage of improvement between inbound and outbound assessments.

“Are our graduate’s earnings comparable to others in the same field?”

To assess earnings, in 2016 we commissioned a study to better understand our graduates’ earnings outcomes.  Conducted by noted economist Dr. Robert J. Shapiro, the study used public and private data to create a large-scale comparison of earnings by college graduates across 273 traditional, public, and private nonprofit institutions.

Applying a rigorous analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage Record Interchange System, as well as data on state university outcomes from, the study showed that KU graduates gain substantial economic value from a KU education and degree, and that value is generally comparable to the value gained from a comparable program and degree from a traditional public or private nonprofit university.  Our nurses did better than most, and our nurses are older and more experienced than most, just as you would expect.  Our nurses earned more than our psychology majors.  Everybody’s nurses earned more than their psychology majors.

"Are our students finishing what they started, completing their programs and earning their credentials?"

Completion rates are another measure of academic quality.  At institutions in the Ivy League, completion is typically well above 90%.  At community colleges, it hovers in the teens.  The difference is the consequence of risk factors and disciplines of study.  At Kaplan University, our students average 3.7 of the identified risk factors related to completing an academic program.  In the Ivy League, the average is less than 1.  At KU, we use risk factors as a basis for providing adequate individual support to help students achieve their academic goals despite the barriers each might face.  Although our results are nearly double those at community colleges, we still have much work to do here.

While the discussion and debate around online education’s role in higher education will unquestionably continue, there is universal consensus on the central role education plays in improving people’s lives.  Education is also a key to a successful and resilient economy.  Given there are some 37 million Americans without college credentials, but some college experience, we all have our work cut out for us.  Various approaches, including online instruction, will be required to raise the country’s higher education attainment levels, which research has shown is necessary for individuals to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Guest blogs are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of CED.