• Views August 4, 2017

At a recent dinner party, the discussion turned to higher education.

One parent at the table was thrilled to have made her final payment toward her child’s $90,000/year MBA. Another was pleased his daughter started her residency program, and his days of paying for her college and medical degrees were over. Questions about whether online education might help reduce college costs and if an “online degree was any good” were raised.

My answer was yes to both. Two online universities are among Finn Partners’ clients, Western Governors University (WGU) and Grantham University. Both offer high-quality online educations at affordable prices. True to its name, 19 Western governors founded WGU twenty years ago to meet the needs of state residents who could not readily attend state universities due to work, family and/or financial challenges. Grantham was founded in 1951 by a WWII Veteran who wanted to help returning servicemen (and now servicewomen) secure an education. Eventually, it became a solely online institution.

WGU and Grantham serve what in recent years has been called “non-traditional students,” meaning they are older, are likely to be working full or part time with families to support, and often have some college credits, but no degree.  The terminology is dated, however, since these non-traditional students now make up the mainstream.

For a variety of issues in America, there is a time lag before a gap in perception and reality is closed. The gap for higher ed is noted in a policy paper by the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success: “The general public and many policymakers share a mental image of a typical college student: a recent high school graduate who is financially dependent on his or her parents and enrolled full time at a bachelor’s degree-granting institution. However, these perceptions sharply contrast with reality.”

Reporters have been writing about the new normal. In 2013, Ben Casselman (then with the Wall Street Journal, now with FiveThirtyEight) wrote in a blog, “…there were just over 5 million ‘traditional’ students – full-time students of standard college age enrolled in four-year public or nonprofit colleges – in the fall of 2011. That’s just 29% of all undergraduates. Even that probably overstates the figure.”

The Lumina Foundation is working to call attention to the facts and the need for corresponding policy changes to best support adult learners. Two stats Lumina highlights: only 13 percent of students at flagship institutions of higher ed live on campus and about 40 percent attend school part time.

Online institutions such as WGU and Grantham understand the needs of 21st-century students and are helping thousands complete undergrad and graduate degrees so they can successfully compete in a far more complicated employment landscape. When you hear people framing the higher education landscape in traditional terms, remember the new reality.