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21st Century Challenges to Increasing Access to Higher Education

By Fred Lokken

As a political scientist, I have closely monitored the longer-term impacts to the Great Recession – especially as it relates to higher education. Many in higher education have been waiting for a return to normalcy for funding and enrollments. Sadly, that is akin to waiting for Godot; the apparent reality is that we have experienced a permanent paradigm shift in public higher education funding and support. The joke that suggests we have gone from “state-funded” to “state-supported” to “state-located” is seemingly truer than we want it to be. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), the cost of a degree has increased more than 538 percent since 1985 – and the pace of tuition increases actually accelerated during the recent – preventing access to those in poverty, the working poor, and those in the middle class. The result: many institutions have experienced flat or declining enrollments for the past several years.

Although not intended, the recession inadvertently introduced greater barriers to access than ever before. We are now dealing with the emergence of an Iron Triangle of challenges in higher education: a need to find ways to reduce the cost of higher education for our students, finding ways to improve the quality and relevance of what we teach as well as increasing access to meet our 21st Century workforce needs, and as a result, the need to serve a larger number of students requiring specialized training and education.

The financial realities of the 21st Century require new and more creative solutions on our part.  I have been involved in the distance learning movement for the past 20 years and know firsthand the many benefits of technology-based solutions in higher education. The U.S. Department of Education recognized in December 2010 that the level and quality of learning in an online environment was equivalent to the traditional classroom. Online learning has helped to reduce costs, increase educational quality and relevance, and has an infinite capacity to deal with the scale needed to address current and future workforce needs. Online education offers far greater flexibility and convenience for our students, is available 24/7, provides by its very nature an applications-based environment for learning about technology while using technology, and especially with its integration with the Open-Education Resources (OER) movement, can significantly reduce course-related materials costs for students. 

The expanded use of technology-based education is essential to meeting the challenges we face. Many solutions are needed, and a strong partnership between higher education and our federal government is essential to our efforts to open wider the door to higher education for everyone in the 21st Century.