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Quality of Online Higher Education Draws Concern During the Pandemic

As colleges and universities move courses online, quality declines and for-profit institutions fill the gap. Higher educations experts see a slate of solutions.

Christian Alvarez-Silva, second from left, with his family and friends at his high school graduation. (Courtesy photo)

For Christian Alvarez-Silva, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted his college experience. I left the whole interactive part of college behind,” said Alvarez-Silva, soon to be a sophomore at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Since March, he has been taking courses online from his family home in Washington, D.C., where he watches lectures that professors pre-record or broadcast live.

Professors have provided fewer office hours. The one-way virtual classes made it impossible to ask questions. An organization that offered Latino students mentorship from upperclassmen is also on hold. While his school safety net dwindled, at home in his already low-income household, his father lost his job due to the economic downturn. There are a lot of distractions,” said Alvarez-Silva, 19. It takes away from being able to focus on my studying.” 

Alvarez-Silva’s story is a common one. In March, American colleges and universities began to move their courses entirely online in order to follow shutdown and social distancing guidelines, affecting over 4,000 institutions and nearly 26 million students nationwide. Some will partially reopen in the fall, but an increased amount of remote learning will certainly continue, and advocates say these institutions are unprepared to deliver high-quality virtual instruction. Meanwhile, if patterns from previous recessions hold, predatory for-profit institutions are poised to take advantage of the moment, enticing new students who take on massive debt and receive a subpar online education.

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Number of higher education faculty members who report that online learning outcomes are inferior or somewhat inferior” to face-to-face courses.

Resource: Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise?

These realities are likely to hit low-income and minority students the hardest, said Kelly McManus, Director of Higher Education at Arnold Ventures. Outcomes across the board for online education are worse than in-person,” said McManus. But those outcomes and gaps for low-income students and students of color are even more pronounced.”

Low-income students may face hurdles ranging from lack of stable internet connection to income, food, and housing insecurity. Many are deferring or canceling their college plans altogether, according to surveys. The pandemic is really exposing and exacerbating the inequities that already existed,” said McManus.

Students of color, like Alvarez-Silva, are confronted with additional challenges, and Latino postsecondary education advocates are on high alert in this moment. We’re going to see a slump in numbers, with Latinos deferring, withdrawing, and the completion gap widening,” said Amanda Martinez, Education Policy Advocate at the Education Policy Project of the nonprofit UnidosUS. Martinez said online courses will reduce personal interaction with professors and peers — a feature important to the Latino student population — and further contribute to achievement gaps.

The pandemic is really exposing and exacerbating the inequities that already existed.
Kelly McManus Director of Higher Education at Arnold Ventures

Faced with these concerns, a range of institutions, researchers, and policy advocates are considering the scope of the problem and the best ways to serve low-income students in a changed higher education environment.

Challenges of Online Learning

For the City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban public system, moving to distance learning has presented challenges. It has converted nearly 50,000 in-person courses, across 25 campuses, said Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost José Luis Cruz.

Situated in the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, CUNY is home to a high proportion of low-income and minority students. Sixty percent of undergraduates report an annual household income under $30,000, according to a 2016 student survey. In 2019, the system reported 76 percent students of color, 29 percent of whom were Black and 30 percent Latin American.

Our students have faced an unprecedented disruption to their learning and their daily lives,” Cruz said. Many are also under stress as parents, essential workers, and caretakers. Many have lost their jobs. Many have had to negotiate the use of a family computer.”

Even the best-planned online learning has its pitfalls. One study showed that online learning has a lower return on investment than classroom learning, especially for historically disadvantaged students. Another found that students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds consistently underperform in fully-online environments.” 

Experts and researchers say these problems are likely to be compounded in the current environment. I have a lot of fears about what’s happening to students who are already enrolled,” said Ben Miller, vice president of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. How many of them are going to drop out and never come back? How many are dealing with a sudden increase in basic needs?”

Student survey respondents who reported they predominantly use their smartphone to complete coursework. Source
Student survey respondents who are using their mobile data plan to access courses. Source
Student survey respondents who report problems connecting to live video lectures. Source

Miller emphasized that designing online learning to meet these challenges is a heavy lift. Any expert you talk to about pedagogy and academic quality will tell you it’s really time consuming.” This involves carefully planning the coursework, changing the teaching approach, and often producing short instructional videos. Because the move online has been so rapid, Miller said, most institutions have taken only the most rudimentary approach: making lectures available through video-conferencing platforms.

While little data yet exists on the results of this transition, advocates have reason to worry that disadvantaged students will fall behind. According to a spring 2020 survey from Higher Learning Advocates, 20 percent of students are using their mobile data plan to access courses, and 20 percent have problems connecting to live video lectures. A stunning 40 percent of respondents reported that they predominantly use their smartphone to complete coursework.

Experts say that students need individual attention to succeed, a feature that falls by the wayside online. We know that student engagement is really important to keeping students enrolled,” said Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates.

Miller agreed: Successfully educating lower-income learners of color — and others who have not had a fancy, expensive education — requires a lot of really strong support.”

On top of this, many anticipate a rise in predatory behavior by for-profit institutions, which make their money by increasing enrollment. Higher education enrollment is known to surge during recessions, and recruiters have already begun targeting new students. Notorious outfits like University of Phoenix are staffing up on enrollment specialists,” and new online lead generators” are cropping up, directing students to a range of low-quality schools.

These for-profit colleges, which target vulnerable student populations, have disproportionately poor outcomes. Students of for-profit institutions take out more loans, are more likely to default, have lower six-year graduation rates, and are less likely to find gainful employment that meets their debt load.

Peller predicts these problems will worsen with more postsecondary education now online. If there are not sufficient protections for students, online learning can happen in a nefarious or predatory way,” she said. We’ve seen those abuses over the years.”

Adapting to the New Normal

Advocates cite a range of ideas for both institutional and policy interventions to deliver a quality education to students as online learning continues. They are also looking to help ward off the most harmful predation of the for-profit sector.

At the Center for American Progress, higher education researchers have for several years been developing equity audits,” a tool that could be used to monitor achievement gaps generally. Institutions could tailor this tool to examine race, gender, income, and other disparities in areas like admissions, online learning, career services, and advising. Elements of the tool could be used to begin real-time reporting on how the crisis is affecting specific groups, Miller said: Instead of a federally-mandated, top-down set of solutions every college must pursue to address their persistent achievement gap, we would want the college to turn a lens on itself.”

Federal intervention can also play a role beyond the initial suspension of loan interest and $15 billion of emergency aid that came along with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Higher Learning Advocates is lobbying to ensure that students eligible for need-based Pell grants are also eligible for the Lifeline program, which provides access to broadband and computers. The organization is also advocating for the Department of Education to set policies ensuring that accreditors hold institutions accountable to quality standards for online programs like retention and future employment, oversight of which can be lacking. That measure would go a long way toward regulating predatory institutions.


Number of college students who take courses online, with no in-person component. Half of these students are enrolled in exclusively online programs.

Resource: Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise?

The CUNY experience offers some lessons. Administrators supported students through the crisis by providing thousands of laptops and tablets, offering remote wrap-around social services, and distributing tens of millions of dollars in philanthropic and federal aid to students in need. It also accelerated graduation for students in essential fields and connected them with workforce opportunities.

On the faculty side, CUNY provided training for online instruction and advising informed by its evidence-based Accelerated Study in Associate Programs initiative. That program has long been a national model for support, offering students a high degree of professor and peer interaction, explained McManus: There are ways of building community that seem to be really important and seem to be a real driver enabling persistence and completion.”

Cruz reported that overall achievement and graduation numbers have remained steady. Early analyses suggest that credit accumulation will not be too far off typical levels,” he said. The CUNY system has seen a 17 percent increase in enrollment for the summer session — this amid signs of a major decline in college enrollment nationally.

Even amid institutional uncertainty, higher learning continues. For his part, Alvarez-Silva will return to GW in the fall, when the university will resume a limited number of in-person courses. He had planned to arrive two weeks early to take part in a program for mentoring incoming freshmen, but that was canceled. It’s still kind of ambiguous,” he said, reflecting on the future of college life. We don’t know what it’s going to be like.”