Writing about online learning in higher education over the last several years, I often noted the steady growth of remote learning nationwide against the sluggish adoption of digital instruction among most Ivy League colleges. Virtual instruction continues to whiz across the country, racing recently with unprecedented gains. But getting your degree at an Ivy League college means mostly sitting in a classroom.
In fact, I decided to compile a list of all the online degrees offered in the Ivy League, and it’s surprisingly short, including only about two dozen online degree programs. Some in this elite group of colleges—specifically Princeton—offers no online degree at all.
What, I wondered, accounts for the reticence? Why do Harvard and other Ivies offer so few virtual degrees?
One Ivy, Columbia University, actually got an early start 35 years ago at the dawn of the digital age, when it launched its Video Network that now produces about a dozen online engineering master’s degrees. And in the past ten years these colleges have been active in offering so-called MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which are free or low-cost courses, usually for no official credit. Ivy League colleges now offer more than 450 of these courses. And some Ivies offer graduate certificate programs online. Cornell, for example, lists about 90 in such fields as hospitality, human resources and engineering.
But full degrees remain rare from these institutions. Harvard just introduced its first online degree as late as June this year.
Online Degree Programs By Ivy League Universities
Two beliefs stand in the way of Ivies accelerating virtual degrees. One is the assumption that the pedagogy Harvard and other Ivies have always practiced—close-knit groups of students and faculty living and studying together immersively on campus—is the finest in post-secondary education, with no other approach coming close, especially not online. The other is the fear that if they adopt remote instruction, it will surely damage their centuries-long accumulation of prestige, undermining what have become the world’s most coveted academic brands.
“The Ivies are all risk-averse,” says Peggy McCready, former associate vice provost for technology and digital initiatives at UPenn Libraries. “The last thing they want is to damage their reputation.”
But the Ivies need not fear their top-of-the-line standing will be undermined by digital education. Nothing can topple their exalted position at the pinnacle of the academic world, least of all online students clacking away on keyboards far from campus.
According to researchers from Dartmouth and UCLA whose results are published in MIT Sloan Management Review, the Ivies need not worry about diluting their brand equity if they launch more online degrees. “Parent brands have been shown not to be particularly vulnerable,” even if extensions fail, the scholars conclude.
Donors—who have made the Ivies astonishingly wealthy, now with combined endowments totaling more than $140 billion—are highly unlikely to stop giving if their alma maters go online more aggressively.
On the contrary, trustees may already question the academic wisdom of shrinking from the digital economy when nearly all of industry underwent virtual transformation long ago. They may wonder whether Ivy academic officers are not bold enough to take their proper place among the leaders of the academic digital age.
Equitably conscious alumni may be uneasy about whether senior academic officers are fulfilling their social mission. Worldwide, the Ivies are praised for being at the forefront of scholarship, but have lagged behind in other important ways. Going back in history, Ivies were late to respond until recently to admitting brilliant, low-income students without paying tuition. Ivies were also late to admit Blacks, late to admit women, and now they are late to fulfilling the needs of working students by denying them online access to degrees. Opening virtual gates to working students may very likely enhance their reputations–not damage them.
Digital students enter the Ivies not by passing through exquisite wrought-iron gates, but on virtual clouds, floating high above campus, never occupying a single seat in a face-to-face classroom, nor sleeping in a bed in a residential house.
Admittedly, the physical closeness and intimate connections in dorm rooms and houses cannot be replicated online. Yes, it’s a wonderful, engaged and fulfilling way of being educated. But it’s for the privileged few who don’t need to work. Others are not so fortunate, especially those who cannot attend college without working. Time off from earning an income is a luxury few can afford.
The troubling fact is that of all undergrads in the nation’s colleges, about 40 percent of full-time and approximately 80 percent of part-time students work. One of the greatest achievements of digital education in this century is its capacity to offer greater access to colleges and universities to students who must work while they advance their studies.
An Alternative Ivy League Pathway to Online Degrees
The University of Pennsylvania is not wobbling on the bumpy road to online education. Instead, it has introduced an initiative that invites faculty to propose virtual degrees where they see a clear need, mostly for working undergraduates and mid-career professionals. In the last several years, Penn faculty have introduced seven new online degrees—not only master’s, as at other Ivies, but also, uncommonly, a bachelor’s and a pair of doctorates, rare for most colleges in higher education.
When Penn’s Online Learning Initiative was launched in 2012, Rebecca Stein, its executive director, recalled, “At first, there was a lot of fear and antagonism, but it opened an opportunity to engage with new technologies.” Eventually, 12 schools at Penn joined, with the School of Social Work proposing a virtual doctoral program, now with students drawn from across the country pursuing degrees without flying to Philadelphia to attend courses face-to-face. Stein says that it and most other Penn online degrees “are for people with established careers who need flexibility.”
The biggest departure from convention came when Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies saw the need for an online undergraduate degree for nontraditional students, an online Bachelor of Applied Arts & Sciences.
“Students in the program work; many with families,” Stein says. “Our motivation was to serve students where they are—which is online—a different population than our traditional undergrad.”
Penn’s online unit acts as a virtual machine shop, with tools designed to launch online degrees—instructional technology, marketing and student affairs, among other crafts. The staff partners with each new program, transferring skills to help build their own digital toolkits.“We chaperone programs, but don’t create them,” Stein says.
Joshua Kim, director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth’s Center for the Advancement of Learning, calls Penn an outlier. “Fully online degrees at low-cost—designed to scale—are unusual among elite institutions,” observed Kim.
Like players in a schoolyard competing in a tug-of-war, the Ivies and other selective colleges face two contesting claims—one towards high-priced, non-degree alternative credentials, the other for more affordable, virtual degrees for a broader student population.
Correction: This article originally misstated that Yale offers no online degrees. It has three.