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End Note

Higher Education's Economic Innovation

The promise and potential of online education
University Business, Apr 2010

Innovation is not a term typically used within higher education circles. Rich in tradition and history, American higher education has been sometimes labeled a bureaucratic, traditionally mired venture that does not change with the times. But this generalization is, in so many ways, incorrect. We have one of the most innovative and complex postsecondary systems in the world, with breadth and depth in our educational delivery. From the Ivy Leagues to our sprawling research-one public institutions, and from our rich historical church-affiliated private institutions to our world-renowned community college systems, America knows higher education.

Higher ed has always been vital in underpinning our economic growth through innovation. Our system led research and development during the Cold War, keeping America a step ahead of its enemies. We embraced the education of hundreds of thousands of returning GIs from World War II, curbing an economic labor crisis in the 1950s.

During the civil rights movement, our institutions led the charge to make college affordable and accessible to all, creating a bridge for uplifting the economic position of millions of Americans. In the 1970s, the burgeoning community college system led the charge to tackle the monumental training needs of our workforce and to retrain dislocated workers from primarily manufacturing sectors to rising service and technology-based sectors, making America's workforce one of the most productive in the world.

A conversation must ensue as to higher education's role in leading America through this current economic crisis and into the 21st century. Across many campuses, one of the most innovative, yet sometimes controversial initiatives in recent years has been the embrace and development of online programs. Avoiding the philosophical debate between online educational delivery and traditional on-campus programs, worth considering is the philosophy of the creation of online learning and its relevance in economic growth.

American success has always had its underpinning in thinking beyond what is for what could be. Over the last 10 to 15 years, online learning has grown out of the specific needs of our citizens. Today, this growth continues in response to America's changing economic and social climate.

Students and administrators alike are turning to online education to help solve very critical and very real challenges. The recent fuel crisis has led some students who are struggling to look for opportunities to reduce trips to campus. Online education has provided the appropriate solution. For administrators, the high cost of building and maintaining campus infrastructure has led to the development of more online courses for growing student populations. But beyond the financial benefits of online learning, it offers yet another formula for economic growth by providing greater educational access to a broader spectrum of American citizenry.

The high cost of building and maintaining campus infrastructure has led to more online courses.

Education is the great social and economic equalizer. Through online education, single mothers without resources to attend on-campus day classes can now get an education, leading to better jobs. People in remote parts of the country can pursue a college education once only dreamed of.

From a corporate perspective, companies providing training to their employees can now offer greater learning opportunities through online delivery. Worker productivity is enhanced by self-paced learning that does not interfere with normal work hours.

Finally, there is the economic and goodwill potential within the global marketplace. American online education leads in reputation, acceptance, and accessibility when compared to systems elsewhere around the world. This advantage has potential for educational access to the burgeoning populations elsewhere. It could restore America's positive reputation on the world stage and provide intellectual transfer around the globe.

The philosophy behind the creation, development, and expansion of American higher education and the rise in online education provides only one example of American ingenuity and commitment to equality, and our embracing of change. It behooves elected leaders and all Americans to continually reflect on these cherished hallmarks as we chart America's path toward economic viability in the 21st century.

Tracy R. Stewart is vice president of information technology and executive director of undergraduate studies at Regent University (Va.).