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Is Online Education a Solution for Iowa Universities?

Given the possibility of a looming enrollment "cliff," along with state funding declines, workforce needs and student expectations, the Iowa Board of Regents last week issued a report suggesting more online options.

University of Iowa.jpg
Courtesy: University of Iowa Facebook page
(TNS) — Before the pandemic rocked higher education, colleges and universities across the nation already were facing a growing list of concerns — including dwindling state funding, course delivery questions and a looming enrollment "cliff" in high school graduates going on to a higher education.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, those challenges remain — and in some cases are more prevalent. But COVID-19, with all the pain it has brought, might have forced to the forefront one potential solution for higher ed: online education.

"The online degree and micro-credential market is expected to grow to $117 billion in 2025, an average annual growth rate of 17 percent, based on revised expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic," according to a new "Distance Education and Digital Delivery" report Iowa's Board of Regents released last week after commissioning Huron Consulting to study the market and opportunities for expanded online education, also sometimes characterized as "distance education."

After Huron distributed its report internally to regents in October, the board appointed a 12-member "Distance Education Task Force" — including University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson, representatives of Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa, along with two regents.

That task force — hoping to tap distance education in addressing enrollment issues, funding declines, workforce demands and student needs — produced a series of recommendations, which the board approved last week.

One recommendation would have the public institutions design a "pilot general education course sharing opportunity," allowing students enrolled at one institution to take online courses from the other two regent universities.

The task force also advised regents support quicker expansion of new online offerings "with an initial focus on graduate and professional offerings" — a space the report shows is booming.

Where Iowa reported a 2 percent increase in the number of students taking only online courses between fall 2015 and fall 2019, the Illinois system reported a 94 percent spike; Wisconsin reported a 37 percent jump; and Indiana reported a 27 percent increase in that pre-pandemic period.

"Except for the University of Minnesota System, the (Iowa) regent institutions' proportion of students taking only distance education courses was lower than all peers, signifying distance education only students as an area for improvement," the report stated.

Although regent Iowa campuses had less distance education growth from 2015 to 2019 than its peer university systems, nearly 35 percent of its students took at least one online course in fall 2019 — proving it an obvious place to prioritize amid overall enrollment losses.

"The growth rate of students enrolled in distance education programs (fully online or blended) from 2015 to 2019 has significantly outpaced total enrollment growth rates," according to the report.

Total combined enrollment across Iowa's three public universities fell 13 percent between a peak of 80,064 in fall 2016 and 69,848 in fall 2021. Meanwhile, between fall 2016 and fall 2019, the percent of Iowa university students who took some or all online courses jumped 54 percent from 16,971 to 26,206 — a percent that's continued to go up thanks to COVID-19, which made many students consider online education for the first time.

"COVID expanded the market," according to the regents report. "Thirty-three percent of prospective and enrolled students said they had not considered fully-online learning before the pandemic, and 59 percent said the pandemic influenced their decision to consider online."


Part of the reason online education presents a possible solution to budget woes and dwindling high school graduates is that it expands the pool of prospects to non-traditional students, like working professionals, while also paring down costs.

Other strategic benefits of growing the campuses' distance education offerings, according to the report, include:

  • Attracting more of the growing proportion of lower-income students;
  • Increasing revenue through higher enrollment while cutting costs "via operational efficiencies";
  • Staying competitive with both traditional universities and new internet-based offerings;
  • Keeping up with rapidly-changing work skills within Iowa and surrounding communities;
  • And addressing the rising costs to serve on-campus students.

"Distance education may present an opportunity for the regent institutions to grow revenue through increased enrollment and reduce costs via operational efficiencies," according to the report.

The board's initial contract commissioning Huron to conduct the distance education study, signed in July 2021, paid it no more than $195,100, plus expenses up to $19,510. An addendum to that contract in December for help facilitating task force meetings paid the consultant another $30,000.

Huron's work included interviews with stakeholders — including every regent and representatives from each campus in Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls. Through those interviews, Huron identified key motives for distance education expansion — like increased enrollment and revenue — and key target audiences — like graduate students and lifelong learners.

"The board and regent institutions both mentioned capturing new audiences and increased revenues and enrollment as motivating factors for the expansion of distance education and digital academic delivery," according to the report.


Huron also identified barriers, including upfront investment and current systems discouraging online expansion.

"Academic units also feel that in order to grow online offerings, there must be a reallocation of faculty and staff support resources away from other mission-critical activities," according to the report, which found disagreement between regents and the universities about what role the board should play.

"The board and regent institutions agree on the motivations for expanding distance education but differ on the role the board should play in the expansion," according to the Huron report. "The board seeks to play a more active role and the regent institutions desire to pursue their own approaches within the bounds of a high-level strategy established by the regents."

Ultimately, according to a regent summary of the Huron report, "collaborating across the universities with new 'system' approaches that capture synergies and efficiencies rose as most likely to enable the kind of strategic growth in online enrollment that the board is seeking."

A systemic approach highlights the regent thinking that distance education isn't just about singular changes to capture more students but joining in the re-imagining of higher education, making it easier for students to take courses from different campuses while fundamentally reducing campus costs.

Cross-campus collaboration also could translate to more public-private partnerships — like Starbucks, IBM, Amazon and Walmart have done with institutions like Ohio State University, Arizona State University, George Mason University, and others.

"The rise of corporate partnerships has changed the landscape for education as companies seek to partner with higher education institutions to develop career-specific curriculum to meet their workforce needs," according to the report.

Challenges Iowa's regent universities will need to overcome in shifting to "thinking and behaving like a system," according to the consultant, include the threat "systemness" poses to the campus' unique identities, the administrative buy-in it requires, and politics.

"Aligning distance education objectives with state needs may require balancing political dynamics," according to the report. "Several peer systems (and others in the market) noted that formal systemwide efforts to expand distance education that rely on the advocacy and promotion of a given political party may impede the long-term viability of formal expansion efforts."


For now, the board and its public universities are focused on several task force recommendations in expanding distance education offerings:

  • Reviewing the charge and activities of its long-standing State Extension, Continuing and Distance Education Council, and establishing new goals;
  • Streamlining university and regent policies for online program approvals to "enhance the institutions' ability to respond to market demand";
  • Identifying financial incentives that support expansion of online programs;
  • Developing a statewide online marketing hub promoting its universities' inventory of online offerings;
  • And designing a pilot general education course sharing program letting students at one institution take online courses from either of the other two universities.

Regent David Barker in responding to the full report last week warned against making too many changes too quickly.

"There's so much change in this area happening very quickly," he said. "We've learned so much over the last couple of years. We have to keep up with that. But we also have to avoid chasing fads."

©2022 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.