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A Future for Everyone: Rethinking Higher Education for All Through Online Modalities

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While the pandemic may have fast-tracked their integration into higher ed, online learning modalities were always and continue to be the future of postsecondary, creating a level playing field for all students.

We are at an interesting historical juncture in higher education. There are many extant and emerging dynamics that challenge the ways we operate, do business and are perceived broadly in society. From the exponential development of artificial intelligence to freemium e-learning apps and emerging technologies, our monopoly on knowledge sharing and expertise is being threatened. Increasingly perceived as disconnected from labor force needs, higher education institutions (HEIs) are facing plummeting revenues and shuttering programs. All the while the metaphorical ivory tower—the figurative inner space of esotericism—is now inexorably linked to our campuses’ physical spaces.

Against this backdrop, this series asks what the future of higher education is. Indeed, many more broadly are asking whether there is a future for higher education. I believe there is, but that future must be more accessible and inclusive. It must be a future for everyone.  

What Does It Mean to Be Accessible and Inclusive?

Accessibility can mean many things in higher education. When educators hear “accessible,” many think about ADA compliance, screen readers, wheelchair accessibility, etc. All these aspects matter, but it is a limiting view of the barriers to access that learners face. Higher education, its infrastructure and its operations were built to serve a very limited population, specifically 18– to 22-year-olds with no outside obligations. Students that could and would uproot, move hundreds, potentially thousands of miles away from their families and devote their time and energies to being a student and immerse themselves into student experience and campus life.  

That’s no longer reality. The vast majority of HEI students (73.8%) no longer fall into the traditional category and have at least one of the following post-traditional characteristics:

  • Independent for financial aid purposes
  • One or more dependents
  • Single caregiver
  • No traditional high school diploma
  • Delayed postsecondary enrollment
  • Enrollment
  • Full-time employment (NCES 2015; Brock 2010; Taniguchi and Kaufman 2005)[1]

There isn’t room in this article to discuss all the factors that have led to the shift in student make-up, but rising costs and inflation, relatively stagnant wages, wealth disparity, healthcare industry and childcare resources all affect our students and their ability to pursue higher education as their only or primary focus. Learners today experience a different reality than the one in which HEIs were designed, a reality that produces manifold and sundry barriers to access.

These barriers include money, care obligations, family obligations, geography, scheduling, mobility and the list goes on and on. Access is removing these and all barriers to give students the opportunity to learn. [2] An inclusive HEI not only removes these barriers but creates an environment in which every learner and student can thrive. Of course, it goes without saying that providing access includes opening our institutions to the perspectives of people of different ethnicities, races, genders, sexual orientations and abilities. To be inclusive, HEIs also need to create and foster environments that recognize all learners’ lived realities and meet them where they are.

Meeting Students Where They Are Empowers Them in the Educational Journey[3]

We can have endless DEI committees and offer tuition scholarships to increase diversity, but we will never move the needle forward if HEIs are locked into an outdated and outmoded mindset, infrastructure and process. Offering a tuition scholarship is meaningless if the learner can’t make it to campus, let alone class. The traditional, residential, in-person-only system intrinsically denies access to those without the means and resources necessary to enter the system and inherently perpetuates inequities in access.

I know this firsthand. As soon as I graduated high school, I had to begin working full time to support myself. I enrolled in college largely because I was fortunate to live in a city that had several colleges and universities, but making ends meet was a necessary priority. I had to schedule courses around my work schedule, creatively navigating my shifts, breaks and course schedules like the most confusing game of Tetris imaginable. I was only able to complete my degree by CLEPing as much as I could and taking courses that provided lectures on sets of VCDs (I’m aging myself) and dropping off assignments after hours. When I became a professor, I saw my story magnified many times over in the lives of my students—students whose barriers were far bigger and more numerous than I could’ve ever imagined. Students, eager and capable of learning, stopping out, dropping out, performing poorly because coming to class wasn’t possible. And that’s only considering the students that have been able to be in Tucson and enroll in in-person courses to begin with!

Online Education and Digital Learning Can Help Bridge This Gap

You might look at my role at The University of Arizona and assume that I’m biased toward online education. I am. My bias, however, is not rooted in my current position but in my lived experience and that of my students. Since teaching in online modalities, I’ve heard endless success stories of students to whom Arizona Online’s online asynchronous modality provided pathways to education that otherwise would not have been possible.

I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Students’ needs are reflected in the shifting trends in higher education, as awareness of and experience with online and virtual learning experiences exploded through the pandemic. Recent data show that students are increasingly leaning toward online courses (Lederman 2021; Venable 2023), with a staggering 73% of students planning to enroll for more online courses in the future (McKenzie, 2021). Over half of all undergrads, even those at traditional, residential colleges, plan to take at least one online course each semester (Smalley 2021). The CHLOE 8 report, considered a go-to source on online education trends, even titled its 2023 edition “Student Demand Moves Higher Ed Toward a Multi-Modal Future,” citing overwhelming data to demonstrate that online modalities are meeting students’ needs (Garrett et al. 2023). This shift in demand for online learning isn’t a response to the pandemic; the pandemic shined a light on the need to reshape the landscape of higher education, to be better, to be more inclusive, to be accessible, to be for everyone. When given the opportunity, students leaned in.

Online education isn’t a panacea for all that ails HEIs. There are and will still be many barriers to access with online learning—increasing tuition costs, internet access, preparedness, student success infrastructure to support learners with various other needs—but it is a meaningful start. Importantly, online modalities allow HEIs to disrupt business-as-usual to re-envision themselves as institutions. In doing so, not only can we secure the future of higher education, but we can transform the future by making higher education more diverse, bridging the labor market skills gaps and fulfilling our mission as institutions of higher learning.

The only future of higher education is a future for everyone. Online modalities move us in that direction.



Brock, T. 2010. “Young Adults and Higher Education: Barriers and Breakthroughs to Success.” The Future of Children, 20.1: 109–132.

Garret, Richard, Bethany Simunich, Ron Legon, and Eric Frederisksen. CHLOE 8: Student Demand Moves Higher Ed Toward a Multi-Modal Future. Quality Matters and Encoura.  

Hamilton, Edward and Andrew Feenberg. 2012. “Alternative Rationalisations and Ambivalent Futures: A Critical History of Online Education.” In Andrew Feenberg and Norm Friesen, ed, Reinventing the Internet: Critical Case Studies. Leiden: Brill. pp. 43–70.

 J.L. Kincheloe, 2008. Knowledge and Critical Pedagogy: An Introduction,

Lederman, Doug. Detailing Last Fall’s Online Enrollment Surge. Sept 16, 2021. Accessed April 20, 2022.

Lederman, Doug. Detailing Last Fall’s Online Enrollment Surge. Sept 16, 2021. Accessed April 20, 2022. 

Lee, Kyungmee. 2017. Rethinking the accessibility of online higher education: A historical review. Internet and Higher Education, 33, pp. 15–23.

McKenzie, Lindsay. 2021. “Students Want Online Learning Options Post-Pandemic” Inside Higher Ed. Accessed on April 14, 2022. 

National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). College Enrollment Rates. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved August 28, 2023, from

National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). Demographic and Enrollment Characteristics of Nontraditional Undergraduates. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved June 07, 2023, from

Smalley, Suzanne. “Half of All College Students Take Online Courses” October 13, 2021. Accessed April 20, 2022,

Taniguchi, H., and Kaufman, G. 2005. “Degree Completion Among Nontraditional College Students” Social Science Quarterly, 86.4: 912–927.

Venable, Melissa A. 2023. “2023 Online Education Trend Report” Best Colleges. Accessed August 29, 2023,

[1] While age is not an official designation in these characteristics, several (e.g., delayed postsecondary enrollment) are directly related to age.

[2] There are opportunities on campuses to harness new technologies to overcome these barriers. One of them is study abroad. I am a firm believer in the transformative power of studying abroad, but these opportunities tend to be exclusive. At Arizona Online, we have attempted to tackle this issue head-on with a pilot project to produce virtual reality (VR) study abroad experiences. The project is still in development, but the cost of entry is much lower than you might think. Please reach out to me if you are interested in discussing this project. We are happy to share all our lessons learned.

[3] There is a long history of meeting students where they are. For me, someone raised on a very small peanut farm in the rural South, George Washington Carver’s Jesup Agricultural Wagon serves as inspiration through his and the Tuskegee Institute’s mission to educate all learners.