Higher Education's Economic Innovation
Across many college campuses, one of the most innovative, yet sometimes controversial, initiatives in recent years has been the embrace and development of online programs. While avoiding the philosophical debate between online educational delivery and traditional on-campus programs, it is more critical to discuss the philosophy of the creation of online learning and its relevance in American economic growth.
America knows higher education. No other country in the world possesses the breadth and depth of comprehensive educational delivery like our uniquely American system.
Though sometimes labeled a bureaucratic, traditionally mired venture that lacks ability to change with the times, American higher education today represents one of the most innovative and complex postsecondary systems the world has ever seen.
During the civil rights movement, it was our own colleges and universities across America that 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 American 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.
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 specific need of the American people. Today, this growth continues in response to America's changing economic and social climate.
Both students and administrators alike are turning to online education to help solve very critical and very real challenges. For students, the recent fuel crisis has led many struggling students to look for opportunities to reduce trips to campus. Online education has provided the appropriate solution. For administrators, the high cost of building campus infrastructure, and the subsequent utility costs to maintain such infrastructure, has led to the development of more online courses for growing student populations.
But beyond the financial benefits of online learning to students and institutions, this growing segment of higher education provides yet another formula for economic growth by providing greater educational access to a broader spectrum of American citizenry. Education is the great social and economic equalizer. Through online education, single mothers without the resources to attend on-campus day classes can now get an education online, leading to a better job. Individuals living in remote parts of the country with few college options can receive greater educational choices and pursue college education once only dreamed of.
From a corporate perspective, a company seeking to provide greater training resources to its employee base can now offer greater learning opportunities, on site, through online delivery. Worker productivity is enhanced by providing online educational delivery through self-paced learning that does not interfere with normal work hours.
Online Education's Potential
Finally, an economic discussion of American online education cannot take place without recognizing its economic and goodwill potential within the global marketplace. Today, online education in America leads in reputation, acceptance, and accessibility when compared to educational systems in Western Europe, Asia, and around the world. This innovative and economic advantage has potential to provide educational access to burgeoning populations, restore America's positive reputation on the world stage, and provide intellectual transfer across every continent.
The philosophy behind the creation, development, and expansion of American higher education and, particularly, the rise in online education, provides only one example of American ingenuity, commitment to equality, and our embrace of change. It behooves our elected leaders and all American citizenry 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.)
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