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Online learning can ease economic inequality

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Digital learning is often seen a complement to sit-in-the-classroom colleges courses, but at a recent conference at MIT, experts convincingly portrayed innovative online offerings as a key tool for helping those of modest means move up the economic ladder.

College degrees pay off. But low-income students often face family, financial, or work constraints that keep them from pursuing higher education full-time or even on a regular nights-and-weekend basis. Citing the fact that 36 million Americans have some college but no degree, keynote speaker Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education and a former federal undersecretary of education, said the American higher education system is “leaving too many students along the side of the road.”


And though Massachusetts is a comparatively well-educated state, the same problem exists here. Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, noted that those who have a bachelor’s degree make, on average, about twice as much as those who don’t. Still, 1.5 million working-age Massachusetts residents either have only a high school diploma or, if they have taken some college courses, have not obtained any kind of degree. That despite the fact that almost a third of working-age residents without a degree say they’d like to pursue one.

The Baker administration hopes that flexible, expanded digital learning opportunities will help them achieve that goal. One subject that came up repeatedly at was the importance of college courses built around mastering competencies, something that students can work on at their own pace and on their own schedule, rather than on spending a specific amount of time in the classroom.

A second: College credit for prior learning. By identifying and giving credit for legitimate skills already obtained, colleges can ease the path toward a degree. That’s particularly important for those who have served in the military, since their careers often included high-quality training.


Meanwhile, several leading employers showcased their own efforts to make digital learning work for current and prospective employees. Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest employer, announced it will make a new online health care-management program, offered through the University of Southern New Hampshire, available to all its employees on an affordable basis. General Electric pledged to interview for jobs any state resident who completes a “MicroMasters” program in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, supply-chain management, or cloud computing offered through the online-learning platform edX.org.

So how to push these trends along? One problem is that federal financial aid is generally not available for competency-based online learning. Meanwhile, more employers should take their cues from Partners and GE in encouraging digital education. And more colleges should get in the game with affordable, for-credit online offerings.

The Baker administration, which sponsored the conference and will soon appoint a commission to explore ways to expand online learning opportunities in areas critical to the state’s economy, should be applauded for its efforts here. This kind of wonky work often get overlooked, but it’s an important effort to create a future where more residents can share the benefits of our knowledge-based economy.