A month ago, I read with great interest Bryan Alexander’s post about colleges preparing to sacrifice the queen. In that post, Bryan includes a number of links to articles about colleges and universities cutting departments and programs “to save money and their reputation.” These moves were made partly out of desperation, but, much like a chess player does when she sacrifices the queen, they are typically hailed as “strategic.” Bryan goes on to write:

And the thing of it is, the thing that keeps me up nights, the horrible truth of the moment is that the queen sacrifice makes all kinds of sense for American colleges and universities.

I tend to agree; these are very, very challenging times. I don’t know anyone who works in higher education (or K-12 education, for that matter) who isn’t dealing with a “do more with less!” scenario.

A few days ago, Bryan moved a little closer to the edge of the cliff as he (re)visited the ongoing narrative of the so-called “higher education bubble.” He says, quite succinctly, “My verdict now is… the bubble might be happening.”

I tend to agree more with Sherman Dorn’s comment to that post than the overall “bubble” narrative. In particular, I completely agree with Dorn’s statement about private institutions: “Tuition-dependent private schools are also vulnerable, and here is where the high-tuition model is most dangerous to an institution.” I just don’t see how expensive, open admission (high yield) private colleges/universities can have a positive outlook these days.

In the post about the queen’s sacrifice, Alexander rather casually drops online learning as a strategy for challenged universities. In discussing options beyond the “sacrificing the queen” strategy, he writes, “There’s also that whole online learning thing.” That’s it.

Today, Slate ran a piece about Southern New Hampshire University, a (formerly) small private university that has gone from serving about 2,000 students (completely on campus) to about 34,000 students, the vast majority of whom are in fully online programs. Paul Leblanc, the president of SNHU, quickly offered a response to the Slate piece wherein he argues that the journalism is sloppy, at best. Regardless, the fact remains that SNHU has CLEARLY “doubled down” on online learning as a growth strategy.

In Virginia, where I live and work, there is the case of Liberty University.

In the almost six years since Falwell’s death, Liberty University has doubled its student head count — twice. Total enrollment now exceeds 74,000, with nearly 62,000 working toward degrees online in fields such as psychology, business, education, criminal justice and, of course, religion. That makes Liberty the largest university in Virginia — with more than double the number of students at No. 2 George Mason — and the largest private, nonprofit university in the country.

These cases beg lots of questions, particularly about the quality of the learning experiences offered by Liberty and SNHU. There are also questions about the impact on the bricks-and-mortar aspects of these universities. It is noteworthy that SNHU is building an $18 million Learning Commons at the center of the campus. The men’s soccer team also just won an  NCAA Division II championship. So, it appears that online learning may actually be augmenting the university’s physical presence and activities. It is not a zero-sum game. 

The positivist social scientist in me knows not to generalize from an n of 2. But, the constructivist in me can’t help but think of these two cases as illustrative. Of something. Of what, I’m not sure yet. What do you think?