Press Release/Statement | July 7, 2020

Unprecedented Mass Migration Increases Risk of Online Education

Oakland, CA – Facing an unprecedented moment in higher education, colleges and universities have closed campuses nationwide and moved online amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, one lasting effect of the crisis may be many more students attending classes online, both at traditional and online colleges.

While the best and often only option during a pandemic, the success of online education is mixed. The capacity of institutions to consistently deliver a high-quality online education to large numbers of students remains in doubt. The result could be that students are less likely to complete their programs and less likely to master the academic material, deficits that may lead them to struggle to repay their student debts.

With a necessary migration emphasizing the long-standing need for better information collection and transparency in online higher education, Untangling the Web: How to Monitor the Risks of Online Education, a new report from The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), surveys the current landscape of online education and identifies critical problems and widespread questions about how a rapid shift online impacts quality.

“Most online programs remain unproven particularly on a large scale, and for students with gaps in academic preparation or other needs,” notes TICAS policy analyst and report author Brett Robertson. “The unparalleled shift to online education is a massive experiment with unknown consequences.”

While colleges had to immediately respond to an unprecedented public health crisis, online education challenges traditional oversight structures, underscoring the need for greater transparency and accountability. Changes in data collection are needed to protect students, including data on the graduation rates, loan defaults, and other outcomes of online students. We recommend that the U.S. Department of Education:

  • Track colleges that move online through pandemic-related regulatory waivers to allow for future oversight.
  • Collect data on online students in key student aid and higher education databases and publish key findings.
  • Identify potentially problematic online programs and institutions by monitoring rapid growth, low student retention rates, and predatory recruiting practices to subject them to further scrutiny.

Congress should consider these recommendations as it writes economic recovery legislation over the next several months. These low-cost ideas would help ensure that the tens of billions spent to support higher education access, affordability, and success this year pay off in returns for students and taxpayers. Many of the ideas could also be adopted by the Department without legislation.


The Institute for College Access & Success is a trusted source of research, design, and advocacy for student-centered public policies that promote affordability, accountability, and equity in higher education. For more information see or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.