How could elite institutions better meet the needs of underserved student populations?

You may have read that Georgetown University is launching an online part-time bachelor’s degree in liberal studies program in partnership with Coursera.

Georgetown already offers an on-campus version of this program through its School of Continuing Education to a student body of 62 percent students of color and 40 percent military-related learners.

The online program will be offered worldwide for $400 per credit hour, which would be up to $48,000 for 120 full credits – but could be as “small” as $22,400 if transfer credits and military training were applied.

This figure is much cheaper than average list price of $1,586 for in-person training at a private facility. But that’s far more expensive than the cost of face-to-face, interactive learning at a community college or many broad-access regional or city audiences. The average cost per community college credit is $158 and $266 for in-state students at the University of Florida and $372 at the University of Texas at Austin.

So what, I and a few colleagues have wondered, is the value of undergraduate extension programs?

Are extension programs offered by institutions offered by Harvard or Columbia a authentic an alternative to a traditional undergraduate education – a cheap way to get much of the same education offered to a highly selective undergraduate population at a fraction of the price? Are these programs generating money? What exactly is the function or purpose of such programs?

Some extension programs are indeed money-generating. What they are not are very affordable and scalable courses to some degree. In reality, these programs tend to bring very few students to the baccalaureate. Instead, most courses are filled with people who already have a bachelor’s degree, which is unsurprising as the courses tend to be quite rigorous and most are designed for skill building or for professionals who take their toes back in higher education. When I taught at Harvard Extension years ago, many students actually saw the classes as a way to meet interesting people, a fancy version of grocery shopping for singles.

Although some extension programs offer financial aid, most are not designed to offer a “full-time” degree program or to serve as a graduation program. according to. These extension programs do not provide the high-level counseling or support system that these students need. A completely online program, especially one delivered as a MOOC, would offer even less substantial interaction with a professor or classmates than its in-person equivalent.

As for the Georgetown program, my reaction is to say, “Why not? Such a program is likely to garner quite a bit of good public relations and give the impression that Georgetown is not just another exclusive and exclusive elite institution, but rather dedicated to serving a wider audience.

After all, it is relatively easy to start such a program. But it is unclear whether such a program is likely to attract many students. Previous attempts, such as those in Arizona States, to deliver an undergraduate degree through MOOCs have not been successful.

But there are deeper questions that need to be asked. What exactly would a diploma in liberal studies mean, especially one from a school of continuing education? My experience suggests that graduates especially like to want something different: a career-aligned degree with a well-defined return on investment. I just don’t know what employers think of such a degree from such a unit.

Moreover, is such a program likely to make the target student population successful? This would be a rare undergraduate student who is sufficiently motivated, likely self-funded, and somehow able to balance earning a degree with work and family responsibilities to take such a program online.

But the bigger question is whether highly-selective private institutions, resource-rich as they are, actually know how to work with students who aren’t hugely intelligent and driven. It is a mission in which community colleges and public universities with wide access specialize. Isn’t there something presumptuous for an R1 to step in and do a better job than these other institutions – especially when they won’t be able to offer wrap around students supports or interaction extended with teachers and classmates?

Expanding access to part-time students and graduates who higher education has historically underserved is a wonderful thing. But before elite institutions jump on this particular bandwagon, their professors should ask themselves if their institutions are well equipped to educate these students better than a community college or a public 4-year institution serving equity.

Years ago, I heard a prominent Georgetown faculty member offer a very different model for how the institution could better serve its local community. It would be a 2-year academy, a kind of Georgetown II, which would be dedicated to preparing its students for transfer to selective institutions. This struck me as not only an exciting idea, but one that would build on the kind of bridging programs and summer opportunities that highly-selective private institutions already offer – and know how to offer effectively.

Such an initiative would be extremely expensive to offer and could not be offered online at MOOC scale in a global market. It would certainly not be a way to make money. But it could, in my opinion, do something that no MOOC, no matter how well designed, could do. It could actually accomplish what the dean of the Georgetown School of Continuing Education says the online liberal arts graduation program promises: “empowering more students to complete their bachelor’s degrees, but also to transform their lives”.

I wholeheartedly agree that higher education should help “people changing careers, those connected with the military, or those interested in later higher degrees,” by “providing access and affordability” to “world-class, values-based education”. But if elite institutions are to step into the realm where experienced 2- and 4-year-old institutions, if sorely under-resourced, are already doing God’s work, then they must ensure that their offerings truly exceed the value that this nation’s broad access institutions already offer.

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