John, an old friend, reminded me that the COVID-19 cloud has slivers of silver linings. But for educational institutions to see those precious opportunities, they must look carefully at how student demands that have been changing for two decades are nudged into hyper-warp speed by COVID-19. A recent Wiley Education Services (WES) study (January 2020) examined the aspirations of fully online students. The findings are relevant to West Texas A&M University as it genuinely seeks to serve students as individuals with diverse needs.
WT’s pre-COVID-19 goal was to serve half of our students on campus and the other half online (50/50). The goal still stands. Each modality benefits the other.
Here are a few conclusions from the WES study.
Students are concerned about efficacy, cost and return on their investment. Many factors impact choice of study options for online students. To be sure, over half cited costs as a key consideration, as do on-campus learners. Advertised prices and actual costs borne by students are not always the same. Time to complete the degree, assistance through scholarships and financial aid all moderate cost. Eight of ten of the online students surveyed “believe their program was worth the overall cost”—a silver sliver of value.
A second finding was that students want to feel good about their place of study. They seek a university with a good reputation. It is ultimately about pride—no surprise to anyone who studies on campus. It is what makes Buffaloes proud of West Texas A&M University, Longhorns proud of The University of Texas and Aggies proud of Texas A&M University. Universities yearn for proud graduates. Pride promotes philanthropy. Thoughtfully managed philanthropy breeds educational excellence.
Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), a leader in online education, works to create pride in graduates. One only needs to look at their commercials and the beaming graduates and their families to understand how vital pride is to the success of SNHU. They spend millions in prime time advertising—no talk about academic excellence, faculty quality or admissions selectivity. Instead, students are shown to be proud of their accomplishments and thankful to SNHU. Reputation drives pride. In fact, two out of three online students are willing to pay more for an experience they are proud of.
COVID-19 will motivate students to study online. According to WES, online students typically enroll at institutions within 50 miles of where they live. Online and on-campus students negotiate work, study and family commitments in a tough triangle of trials to achieve career advancement. The best institutions create a sense of pride for students in all settings. The value of local credentials and campus attachment, even campus events and sports, for online students is important. For an evolving regional research university such as WT, this attention to the particular needs of online students and pride of place builds a reputation in response to student aspirations. Another silver sliver of pride.
Public universities in Texas and other states are encouraged through legislative directives and incentive funding to help students graduate in a timely manner. Four- and six-year graduation rates and retention rates are measured at every public university in the state. These are most important for traditional-age students of 18 to 24, but timely degree completion has value for nontraditional online students as well.
Online learners are interested in educational expediency. Too often, we associate timeliness with a drive-through car wash. It gets the job done, but without the love and care of someone using a hose and sponge in the driveway. Time-to-degree completion follows in the third spot behind cost and reputation. Institutions that equate concern for timely completion as a lack of concern for intellectual depth or academic rigor miss the point. Being responsive to the needs of students to complete studies in a reasonable amount of time, on-campus or online, will become more critical and is yet one more sliver of silver from the COVID-19 cloud.
While cost, reputation and timeliness seem of heightened value in current circumstances, these considerations have been important at excellent universities since the beginning of the second millennium. West Texas A&M University will be responsive to students both on campus and online as we serve the upper reaches of Texas. Sharp focus is required to see a silver lining in the online onslaught created by the COVID cloud.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.