Access to higher education is not the same for everyone in Pennsylvania. In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened concern about growing gaps in academic achievement and the impact educational inequity can have on individuals, families, and the economy. These concerns have sparked renewed interest in the potential of online education to reach a greater number of students at both the K-12 and post-secondary levels, and raised the question of whether Pennsylvania is fully capitalizing on the many benefits that online learning has to offer.
Demonstrating the value of online, accredited college degrees is the first step to tap into the long-term economic benefits of remote learning. Online education serves as one of the fastest growing segments of higher education in the U.S. and is a key to access for non-traditional students and those living in historically under-served communities. Yet, misconceptions concerning the value of online learning persist in Pennsylvania.
A recent statewide Western Governors University (WGU) Online Learning Poll conducted by Advance Insights ISEE on PennLive.com and LehighValleyLive.com found that while 78 percent of Pennsylvanians believe that fully-online, nonprofit, accredited universities provide a valuable chance for residents to earn a college degree who might not otherwise be able to complete one, yet only 34 percent believe an online education is as valuable, or more valuable, than a degree earned on-campus. Simply put, an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvania residents misconceive that online degrees are inferior to those earned on a traditional college campus.
At the forefront of changing attitudes toward online learning are companies with highly-valued employees who have earned degrees from online schools. For example, a Harris Poll found that 97 percent of companies who employ WGU alumni believe WGU grads meet or exceed expectations, with 96 percent saying they would hire another WGU graduate. Experts in academia also tout the results achieved through online learning.
A Babson College study found that more than 80 percent of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face classes. Further, a Gallup Poll of WGU alumni found that, compared to college graduates nationally, graduates from WGU are more likely to thrive in career, social, financial, community and physical well-being.
Another barrier preventing under-served communities from pursuing degrees is access to broadband in both rural and urban areas of Pennsylvania. Currently, only four states meet or exceed the federal target of 25 megabytes per second (Mpbs) for broadband. Though Pennsylvania is not among them, Gov. Tom Wolf recently announced a $15 million program to help schools in Pennsylvania fund high-speed internet platforms and remote learning. I applaud this effort.
Much like other utilities, broadband internet service is a vital community resource that meets the needs of residents and is considered a key factor in quality of life standards for central Pennsylvania communities.
Securing equitable access for all Pennsylvania residents is more than an investment in infrastructure, it’s also an investment in the commonwealth’s labor force and the talent pipelines that feed businesses and support local economies.
As Pennsylvania maps out a strategy for its future, I am convinced that, given the opportunity, every person has something essential to contribute to the commonwealth. Talent is ubiquitous; opportunity is not. Expanding opportunity through online learning can complement the outstanding learning experiences provided by traditional schools in Pennsylvania and greatly expand access to higher education for all who live here.
We must also ensure that broadband internet access is more widely available for all Pennsylvania residents. As many as 800,000 Pennsylvanians live without high-speed internet. Comcast initiatives, plus state and federal funds, for broadband access projects will help K-12 and future students. But would-be higher-ed online learners lacking access to broadband are stuck for now. Employer demands for relevant, in-demand skills are changing. It’s imperative that Pennsylvanians have access to pathways to gain those skills and build a successful future.
Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 120,000 students, including more than 2,300 students in Pennsylvania.
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