As online classes gain acceptance, colleges must adapt

Suffolk University came into being more than a century ago as an unconventional law school for nontraditional students. So it will be fitting — and helpful to other institutions — if the school can position itself now as a leader in adapting to deep changes in American higher education, especially the dramatic expansion of online learning.

Like many universities, here and elsewhere in the country, Suffolk started with a narrow mission — to be an evening law school for students with day jobs — and expanded its offerings over time to replicate more of the undergraduate and graduate programs at more established institutions. Now, that era of rapid institutional growth at universities seems to be ending, especially for schools that, like Suffolk, rely heavily on tuition rather than research grant revenues or vast endowments for their funding. In response, Suffolk’s newly inaugurated president, James McCarthy, is moving away from an all-things-to-everyone approach. Instead, the university’s new strategic plan focuses on academic areas where the school has been strongest and those that lead most directly to careers. It also vows to use more online instruction, in part to keep tuition costs down.

Some students and faculty might see the plan as limiting Suffolk’s horizons. Despite compelling research suggesting that students can learn well from courses combining online lessons with face-to-face teaching, implementing this approach on a large scale would require changes in how Suffolk deploys personnel — and risks the perception the school is trying to educate students at a discount.


Yet most other universities will have to reassess their priorities in coming years, too. Just as the advent of the Internet has transformed the media landscape, it’s likely that future students will see a substantial amount of online instruction as an acceptable part of a college education. Future employers are bound to follow suit.

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Many big-name research universities believe that online courses create opportunities to extend their reach; MIT and Harvard, for example, are leading an initiative called edX, whose offerings have attracted thousands of enrollees. For less renowned universities, the potential disruption is greater, as students are drawn to cheaper online alternatives. The rush is already on: Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education noted a move by a group of public universities, mainly in the South and West, to issue credits for students who take open online courses.

The health of the Boston economy will depend in part on whether local universities make the right bets about how best to incorporate Internet-based instruction — and whether they can bring their faculties along. According to the Babson Survey Research Group, university administrators report that faculty acceptance of the value and legitimacy of online education has leveled off — and by some measures actually dropped — in the last several years. One faculty member quoted in a recent Globe article urged Suffolk’s leadership to commit to raising more outside money and avoid tuition hikes, layoffs, and pay freezes. Suffolk should tap any reasonable funding source it can identify. But it’s not at all clear that universities of tomorrow will be organized — and require the same mix of employees — in precisely the same way as those of today.

The Babson Survey Research Group report also indicates that students in online courses, a type of instruction that barely existed a decade and a half ago, now make up a third of total college enrollment. Suffolk is wise to try to get ahead of the changes. Other institutions must consider how to follow suit.