Colleges and universities have been at the forefront of the nation’s response to the alarming spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, with many turning to remote online learning to meet social distancing goals. Though the changes are currently viewed as temporary, they could have lingering impacts on higher education.

For years, many colleges and universities across America have been shifting portions of their classes and programs from the traditional on-campus face-to-face format to either 100 percent online courses or hybrid courses that blend online content with specific in-person experiences like practical exercises or laboratory sessions.

An increasing number of colleges and universities are now stopping or dramatically reducing face-to-face instruction and shifting education to online platforms to slow the spread of COVID-19. This apparently temporary shift to online delivery looks to rapidly accelerate and broaden the shift toward distance learning that is already taking place.


Distance learning has both benefits and risks to students and to colleges.

If a college has already invested in an online learning platform, faculty may be able to transition to some form of online teaching in a few days. But we don’t expect this rapid, short-term switch to have much educational benefit beyond ensuring that students do not lose learning time during this pandemic. Because faculty are quickly changing the format of delivery and have had no time to modify their materials or instruction to fit the online mode in many cases, the quality of delivery is likely to decline in the short term.

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However, if requirements for social distancing extend for multiple semesters, colleges will be forced to adopt online or hybrid approaches for a much longer duration. The longer this temporary exposure to online teaching and learning lasts, the more we expect faculty and students to become comfortable with this model. Some faculty and students who today prefer face-to-face classes may shift their preference toward online or hybrid modes because they can teach or take classes from any location (and for some approaches, at any time of day).

To enable high quality online and hybrid learning, colleges could prioritize investments in resources that can transform their face-to-face programs into online programs while maintaining or even increasing their quality. These investments could include partnering with instructional designers or private companies to design online courses and rapidly train faculty to move classes online.

Although these more fully-featured online courses may each take a semester or a year to develop well, such programs can both increase student access and improve their outcomes and will likely lead to greater adoption of these technologies even after the COVID-19 crisis passes.

We expect that the classic residential undergraduate experience will continue to be valued by many colleges and students and is likely to continue once this crisis passes, but it seems like it might become more of a luxury for those institutions and families that can afford it.

Although good online and hybrid classes require an up-front investment, over time they may save costs for students and colleges. Students could save on commuting costs and potentially access online materials at lower costs than traditional textbooks. Colleges may realize savings over time, especially if more students can be served with a single course through online delivery. Those savings could be passed along to students in the form of lower tuition.

But even with greater adoption of online formats, we do not expect face-to-face instruction to disappear. Face-to-face learning has advantages in helping students and professors create a supportive network and learn important social and behavioral skills. Face-to-face learning can also be a better approach for certain types of students (like those who need more structure and motivation) and programs (where physical contact is essential to learning).

We expect that the classic residential undergraduate experience will continue to be valued by many colleges and students and is likely to continue once this crisis passes, but it seems like it might become more of a luxury for those institutions and families that can afford it.

It is essential that steps are taken to limit social contact until the coronavirus outbreak can be controlled. Online learning is a major strategy to help social distancing and it also holds promise for making higher education more accessible, and potentially, more affordable in the future.


At the same time, we expect to see accelerating adoption of distance learning not only in response to the needs of this crisis but more generally to serve students where they are. As the technologies mature, they do hold some promise of reducing the cost of higher education.

We could see the U.S. higher education marketplace increasingly split into a more luxury residential segment and a more widely accessible, less expensive, online or blended model. The shock of emergency responses to COVID-19 could accelerate the transition to such an online and hybrid future.


Rita Karam is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. She specializes in educational policies, educational equity, and program improvement.