How Is the Recession Affecting Online Higher Education?

John SenerBy John Sener

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the 11 o’clock news on television. My recollection is that it consists of an endless series of deaths, accidents, and other disasters, relieved only by the commercials and an occasional human interest story. Ray Schroeder’s blog “New Realities in Higher Education” is the 11 o’clock news for higher education — except without the heartwarming human interest stories or commercials. The stories are pretty much one hair-raising signal of impending doom after another — make sure you’re in a reasonably good mood before tackling this one.

Once the train wreck/auto crash voyeuristic feeling wears off, inevitably when reading New Realities I find myself wondering: Is the recession helping speed the adoption of online higher education, or slowing it down, or some of both? On the one hand, many community colleges are reporting the increases in enrollment demand that economic downturns typically bring, North Carolina being one example. On the other hand, many (often the same) community colleges are also reporting budget cuts which force them to cancel classes and otherwise reduce offerings, North Carolina also being one example.

One school of thought is that the recession will drive adoption of online learning as a cost-saving measure or as a way to provide access to education for cost-conscious students. A counter-argument is that initial implementation of online education requires investment in infrastructure, faculty development, culture change, etc. and that such funds are not available, hence online education adoption is being slowed down.

So far, I haven’t been able to find anything other than speculation about this topic. By contrast, one of Ray Schroeder’s previous blog efforts, Fueling Online Learning, showed pretty clearly that last year’s astronomical gasoline prices had a strong correlation with increased enrollments in online higher education. (The causal connection is less clear, but a case can be made that there was one.)

Anyone have any concrete evidence on the recession’s effect on online education?