As the light fades on another week of online higher education news, we pause to survey the retreating horizon in the light.
Online colleges were set to gain a boost in reputation with the announcement that U.S. News and World Report would begin ranking them in a manner similar to its ranking of traditional colleges and universities. It now appears, however, that this bid for added legitimacy will remain on hold. "Last June, when U.S. News & World Report announced plans to add online programs to its college kingmaking franchise, skeptics said it couldn’t be done," reports a November 4, 2011 New York Times article. "Predicted to be published in October, the ranking is now promised only for some time 'when it’s cold out,' says Eric Brooks, the data research analyst tasked with developing a methodology."
To blame for the hold-up is controversy surrounding the very idea of ranking online schools. When it comes to gathering information on them "there is scant criteria with which to compare programs in search of that 'good fit," the New York Times article continues. "A Google searcher invariably ends up at lead-generating sites that claim to 'match' students to the 'right' college." This, coupled with the tepid participation – or outright refusal – on industry giants Capella and Kaplan's part when it came to completing the survey dispatched U.S. News and World Report, means that no clear sense of how to measure online schools against each other is on the horizon.
The rankings, should they ever actually appear, may not matter inasmuch as a college degree – whether from an online or a traditional institution – simply lacks the sort of value it once commanded in the labor market. "With the unemployment rate of persons graduating with a bachelor's degree hovering close to five percent, students who graduate are now faced with a harsh reality when they try to enter the workforce after their college years," observes a November 3, 2011 article in The Rocket (the student newspaper of Slippery Rock University).
This problem is especially acutely among Slippery Rock grads. "Among students at Slippery Rock University, whose recent unemployment rates are slightly higher than the national average, those who do career planning while completing their undergraduate degree typically are better prepared to face a weak job market upon graduation," the Rocket article continues.
Part of proper career planning may not involve so much choosing the right degree program, but the right financial aid program. As student-loan debt mounts, so does postcollegiates' anxiety. "Members of the college class of 2010 who took out student loans owed on average $25,250 upon graduation, a 5 percent increase from the year before," reports a November 3, 2011 Associated Press article "Roughly two-thirds of the class of 2010 borrowed for college, and they were hit especially hard because the unemployment rate for new college graduates stood at 9.1 percent the year they graduated."
The AP article also points out that "the figures do not include students at for-profit college, where other recent data show 96 percent of graduates have loans and they borrow nearly 50 percent more than those who graduate from other four-year schools."
Universities themselves have shown a stunning lack of robustness when it comes to meeting the challenge of this employment crisis. "Universities, both public and private, have generally reacted to the economic slump and escalating costs of the past few years with retrenchment rather than even minimal expansion," reports a November 3, 2011 Washington Post article. "Their lack of creativity in adjusting to the reduction of resources has shocked governors and business leaders alike who want to see universities innovate in order to educate more students better, faster and cheaper."
"Better, faster and cheaper" may mean "digital" in this case. And who better to address this challenge than online colleges, which already offer a wide variety of degree programs that students can enter without having also to enter a lecture hall or classroom? Whether their career preparation involves gaining credentials in nursing or business administration, online college students represent the emerging model of higher education. If traditional institutions can rouse themselves to adapt to times, they may just find themselves sagging into obsolescence – especially if those promised U.S. News and World Report online college rankings should materialize.