Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 1: States use online learning to save space, cut spending

What has been called a “crisis” by some higher education leaders in North Carolina is being viewed as an opportunity to cut state spending and improve services in Washington State.

Anticipating rapid growth in the demand for college courses during the next 10 years, Washington’s Higher Education Coordinating Board is asking the legislature to increase spending on online education so the state can avoid constructing new buildings or campuses, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week. Web-based courses could absorb some of a projected 70,000 additional students, according to the board’s 2000 Master Plan for Higher Education released in January.

The master plan calls for an increase in the number of online courses and in the use of the Internet to create a hybrid format for traditional courses. The hybrid format would permit some class meetings to be held online. Thus, more courses could be accommodated by the same number of classrooms on campus. The master plan estimates that out of 15 course-hours that full-time Washington students take in a given semester, an average of 1.5 hours will eventually be spent online.
“The important thing is that we’re recognizing it for the first time as a way to deal with our student-population growth,” Marc Gaspard, director of the coordinating board, told The Chronicle.

Last year, 203,293 students attended public institutions of higher education in the state of Washington. The 70,000 additional students expected by the year 2010 are projected to include 52,500 who will attend public colleges and universities.

Richard T. Hezel, president of Hezel Associates, a research company specializing in distance education, said that students would not be forced to use online education against their will.

“It won’t necessarily be displacement,” he said. “It’s just that there will be more students willing to take courses online, and that will make room for the student who aren’t as willing.” 

UNC enrollment is also projected to increase — by 50,500 students — in the next 10 years. But in North Carolina, the projection has not led to calls for such cost-cutting measures. Instead, the university last summer hired consultant Eva Klein, who developed a 10-year, $6.9 billion capital plan that included billions of dollars in new construction to accommodate the projected enrollment boom. In light of the plan’s failure, UNC President Molly Broad has asked that students pay a $100 facilities fee to cover the cost of new, “urgent” construction.

But is new construction the only way to accommodate the projected enrollment boom?

Not according to Washington, Texas or California — all states that are looking to expand online learning. And not according to some North Carolina legislators who believe that a tuition increase is unnecessary and that student fees are too high right now.

“Fees are already very high and there’s not as much scrutiny of fees as there used to be,” said Sen. Virginia Foxx, R-Watauga.

“Universities don’t want to schedule [classes] at times that are inconvenient to students,” Foxx said of UNC’s existing use of building space. “That’s crazy. If you look, you’d see that most building are being used from 10-3, Monday through Thursday.”

Meanwhile, online courses continue to expand rapidly in higher education. Many students entering college in the next decade will be comfortable with technology, said Marc Gaspard, executive director of the Washington coordinating board. And universities will embrace new technologies as a way to relieve campus congestion.