Is Online Higher Education Working? Only Data Will Tell

As thousands of colleges and millions of college students prepare for a fall semester that will likely be partially or fully online, it may not have been comforting to see the President of the United States’ recent tweet: 

This tweet reflects a few realities. The first is that while the promise of online higher education is great, the research is emerging and mixed. And for students who haven’t traditionally been well-served by higher education, outcomes in fully online education are even worse than in-person classes. The President’s sentiment also reflects many students’ experiences this spring when their in-person classes were replaced with clunky Zoom sessions as their colleges were forced to turn on a dime to remote instruction. 

In spite of those realities, it’s also a reality that many students will experience college largely or fully online this fall as the pandemic wears on. We need to know what happens to these students and we need to know as quickly as possible. And right now we don’t and can’t know. This is because the data colleges report on whether students are fully face-to-face, fully online, or in a hybrid model are significantly out of date—and don’t capture when students move among these three modalities. As Congress considers billions of additional dollars to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on higher education, it must also make sure that policymakers have timely data to answer questions about how the broad and sudden shift to distance education and the eventual shift back to campus-based or hybrid instruction has and will impact college access, persistence, and success. 

This is even more important given that the Department of Education has given colleges emergency flexibilities, which allow them to skip the normal step of receiving accreditor approval for their online programs. This, combined with out-of-date information, means accreditors may not know which schools might require additional quality assurance checks in their transition to online learning—which can put millions of students at risk.  

The simplest, least burdensome way to get the information would be for Congress to add a new field to the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to capture whether students were enrolled in distance education before March 2020 and how students move into and out of distance education going forward. Schools are already required to report the number of students enrolled exclusively in distance education, partially in distance education, or not in distance education annually to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), so they already have much of the data recorded internally. 

This is the very least Congress should ask of colleges that have already received billions of dollars to staunch the financial bleeding of the pandemic. These dollars are not just to support colleges, but to support students going to—and borrowing to go to—those colleges. Congress should require that the Department of Education use these data to publicly report on aggregate metrics including students’ enrollment patterns, Pell Grant and loan receipt, and dropout rates by distance education status to inform responsive policy making and oversight by the feds, the states, institutions, and accreditors. 

While this little piece of distance education data would be limited only to students who receive Title IV funding, thanks to the lack of a better postsecondary data system (Congress can and should fix that, too!), it would provide policymakers with a much clearer picture of the impact of the public health crisis on students’ educational paths and help identify opportunities to support them in the semesters and years to come. President Trump’s tweet may be right, wrong, or somewhere in between—but right now there’s no way to tell how particular schools are serving particular groups of students transitioning between different educational modalities. In this time of crisis and eventual recovery, the overall importance of accurate, timely data cannot be understated—it will serve an essential resource for lawmakers to craft evidence-based policies to support students through the dual public health and economic crises and beyond. If we don’t know how students are doing, Congress is just throwing money at schools and hoping for the best. Our students and our country can’t afford that.