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The Future of Higher Education

Online, all students sit in the front row

I went to Arizona to learn about a new era of online learning.


I went to Arizona earlier this month to see what the college of the future might look like. What I found taking shape is an exciting new era of higher education that will help more students get a great, personalized education at an affordable price.

This future may not always include the lecture halls, dormitories, football teams and other features of the traditional college experience. Instead, the colleges I visited are experimenting with ways for students to get their degrees online, allowing them to take courses anyplace and at any time.

These “colleges without walls,” as they are sometimes called, are at the forefront of the effort to broaden access to higher education, especially for low-income students juggling their studies with full-time jobs and families. During my visit, I heard inspiring stories of students who are taking advantage of these flexible learning models to pursue degrees that can put them on paths to new careers. 

One of those students is Shawn Lee, a student at Rio Salado College in Tempe. He has a compelling story: After dropping out of college decades ago, he found himself in a series of low-paying, often back-breaking jobs. He recently decided to get his degree—and I’ve found this is a pretty common refrain at community colleges—when he had his first child and wanted to start building a better life.

Tucked away in an industrial park in Tempe, Rio Salado doesn’t look much like a traditional institute of higher education. There were no students running to class. No ivy-covered walls. Just a couple of glass-faced office buildings.

As we walked inside for a tour, there was an even bigger surprise.

The college has just 22 full-time faculty serving 60,000 students, with more than half of them attending their classes online. (The full-time faculty depend on 1,400 part-time teachers who manage individual class sections, review/grade assignments, and consult with students.) Students can start any of the school’s 1,000 courses almost any Monday of the year. Classes cost $84 per credit hour, far less than what other colleges charge.

I also visited the University of Phoenix, a for-profit institution with more than 300,000 students, where teachers and staff are working to make online learning even more flexible. One of the most popular innovations is a mobile app that gives students the freedom to study virtually anywhere. With the app they can keep track of their grades and assignments, participate in class discussions, and receive alerts from their teachers about their courses.

If your idea of college is a professor lecturing in front of a classroom full of students, some of these innovations may be surprising, even a little unsettling. But this kind of out-of-the-box thinking is needed to address the challenge facing higher education. College tuition is rising faster than any other cost in the U.S.—pricing many students out of a degree. More than 40 percent of college students drop out, depriving them of the chance to earn more money and leaving the U.S. without the highly-trained workers we need for economic growth. The fact is, we face a real dilemma. We need to educate people in a better way without increasing cost.

Most mornings I listen to online courses while walking on my treadmill. In my experience, what separates the great courses from the mediocre ones is the quality of the professors, whose passion and expertise bring their subjects to life, as much online as in-person.  That’s why it’s critical that during this time of transition we keep our focus on the instructors. They are the ones who inspire and guide students. The best online learning technologies expand the reach of the most inspiring professors by allowing more students to be part of their classes.

The risk of this mass approach to education, of course, is that students might get lost in such an impersonal setting. That’s why Rio Salado and other institutions are researching new approaches to student advising.  Using the growing body of data available about online students’ learning habits—for example, are they completing assignments and logging onto their courses regularly?—the institution can intervene to help students at risk of falling behind or dropping out. “Students don’t get lost because no one can just sit in the back corner. Everyone is in the front row,” a Rio Salado faculty member told me.

Several students I met during my visit said they liked learning online better than in a classroom. “I’ve taken college classes in a big auditorium with herds of people. There was no personal connection,” one University of Phoenix student said. “Now I can reach my teacher with the click of a mouse.”

Other students said they liked the fact that they can learn at their own pace and fit school into their busy schedules. What still needed improvement, however, was a connection with other students. They said they struggled to complete team assignments online because it was too difficult to coordinate schedules. Lab work for science classes and other hands-on learning can also be problematic, although Rio Salado is addressing this issue by giving chemistry students a lab kit to use at home. Marine biology students get a frozen squid to dissect.

The biggest challenge facing all higher education institutions is how to ensure more students stay in college or university and complete their degrees. They are looking everywhere for solutions. Arizona State University, for instance, discovered that the college catalogue overwhelmed students with too many class choices and gave them too little guidance. So the university redesigned the entire experience. The new, personalized online catalogue features “major maps,” which outline a major’s key requirements, optimal course sequence, and career options to help keep students on the path to graduation. 

I left Arizona feeling quite optimistic about what the future holds for higher education. It also reminded me how much work still needs to be done. What’s most exciting is that the institutions I visited are not standing still. They are taking risks and using their creative and intellectual powers to reinvent themselves for the future. In doing so, they will give many more students the opportunity to do the same with their own lives.