by Greg Mayer

A writer in The New York Times has taken a rather optimistic view of the implications for higher education of the current shift to remote teaching and learning. It’s not that he thinks things are going well this semester– they’re not. Rather, he thinks that colleges will be able to reopen without that much change in the fall (or whenever things return to normal).

His thesis:
As for predictions that it will trigger a permanent exodus from brick-and-mortar campuses to virtual classrooms, all indications are that it probably won’t.
I think he’s too optimistic. While the experience with remote education has not been good, many colleges outside the top tier see remote education as a lifeline to survival, and administrators at these colleges are eager to embrace the tuition-paying students, and cost savings, that remote education brings. To see this, just spend a little time perusing the house organs of education administrators, Inside Higher Ed (open access) and the Chronicle of Higher Education (much of it paywalled).

For years now, the only thing that has mattered to administrators is institutional success. Institutional success means the continued existence of the institution; success in the acquisition of funds from funding sources; and good publicity. For awhile they thought that recruitment (enrolling as many students as possible) and retention (making sure every student who enrolls keeps coming back every semester) were the keys to success. In all of a college’s activities, attracting new students was the point—finding and enrolling these new students was all that mattered.

More recently, administrators (to a great extent under pressure created by the neoliberal initiatives of the U.S. Department of Education) have come to believe that graduating students is more important than getting students. This might seem a laudable redirection, but, in a textbook exemplification of Campbell’s Law, this meant that the entire aim of higher education could be re-imagined—credentialing became the goal.

So, many colleges now seek to recruit, and then rush through to credentialing, as many students as possible. Many new programs have been created in pursuit of this goal. And much of the work of creating and running such programs can be outsourced to companies that, in exchange for a cut of the tuition, promise to find the students. (It’s remote education, so the students can come from anywhere.) Recently, however, one such company, Academic Partners LLC, has run into some difficulty; the president of the University of Texas, Arlington, was forced to resign because of his allegedly shady dealings with the company. But I fear this is just a speed bump on a rush to change the nature and mission of higher education.