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K-12’s Hasty Retreat to Online Learning Will Leave a Lasting Mark on Higher Ed

elementary student learning online

It seems everyone has a story about how hard online learning was for K-12 students during COVID-19. For me, it was my niece Elizabeth.

Before the pandemic, Elizabeth had always been a straight-A student, typically battling one or two other students for that top spot her entire time in academics.

A year into COVID-19, she was a B or C student. To see her fall from grace after transitioning to online learning was nothing short of stunning.

Inspired by Elizabeth’s story and the other informal studies and coverage on K-12 students’ view of online learning—plus knowing how many colleges and universities have invested so much into online learning— I performed my own informal survey of the 13 K-12 students in my own family.

When I asked: “Would you consider going to college virtually?” their answers were nearly unanimous:


“Probably Not.”

“God NO. That wouldn’t help me at all.”

“If it was the only option. I would much rather be in person.”


Many colleges and universities have invested millions of dollars over the last two decades in online learning with the hope that students would flock to their online learning platforms.

And as an enrollment marketing consultant, my family members’ answers (ranging from digital yelling to indicating online learning as a last resort) gave me a reason to worry that future college students may instead run in the opposite direction rather than flock to online offerings.

What Went Wrong with Online K-12 Schooling

It’s not that online education itself is inherently lacking.

According to Christine Greenhow, associate professor of educational technology at Michigan State University: “If done right, online learning can be as good or better than in-person learning for the students who choose it.”

The key words there are “if done right.” Many K-12 schools had to rush to go virtual and they didn’t have millions of dollars and two decades to prepare.

Guess what? The majority didn’t get it right.

For millions of students, these rushed implementations done on a shoestring budget were their first impressions of online learning — which made for an all-time low in students’ attitudes toward online learning.

Formal studies and informal surveys of students and teachers tell the same story: full-time remote learning during COVID-19 was difficult, burn-out inducing, and lonely.

In mid-November 2020, EducationWeek published a report, which found:

  • Two-thirds of teachers said that the majority of their students were less prepared for grade-level work than they were at this time last year.
  • 56% of teachers said they had covered only half, or less than half, of the curriculum content that they would have typically covered during the same timeframe the previous year
  • Only about 1 in 5 teachers said that they were on the same schedule as years past.

Meanwhile, Colleges and Universities Face Those Problems and More

The economic and mortality impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been widely discussed including impacts on enrollments at colleges and universities across the country. Overall, as of June 15, 2021, enrollments are down across the board 3.5% from fall 2019 according to the National Clearing House.

And while some had to pivot to online learning temporarily due to safety concerns, others had already begun investing heavily in online learning long before the pandemic.

Over the last 10 years, many colleges and universities have invested millions of dollars in online platforms, believing that they can deliver courses online with lower overhead costs than in-person learning. That makes sense because you’re not having to have classroom space and heating, cooling, and everything else that comes along with physical spaces. If you’re doing it virtually or online, you’re saving a lot of those costs and can have more students in the class.

Because of this belief, there’s been a big push for schools to get as many degree programs online as possible. To make that happen, many have signed multi-year multimillion-dollar contracts with online education providers to offer white-labeled online degrees through their schools.

Schools with Online Offerings Will Need to Step Up Their Marketing Significantly

Before this shift, online programs were a cool way for schools to show prospective students that they were flexible and tech-savvy. But now, for a generation that was forced online along with all their peers, that association just isn’t going to happen.

Still, even though K-12 dropped the ball during the transition online, quite a few colleges and universities didn’t. There’s a lot of research that’s been done out there that students can learn just as well online as they can face-to-face and even better in some cases.

And they’re going to need to talk about it. Specifically, colleges and universities are going to have to sell the online experience harder and speak about the outcomes and benefits more often and more directly.

If they had online courses prior to COVID, they transitioned well, and their students did well virtually, then that messaging needs to go into their marketing materials. Or if it simply wasn’t a hard transition for them, their students performed well, and they were able to get them back to face-to-face learning — schools need to talk about that.

The Other Option? Listen and Innovate

One school, Baker College, took a slightly different approach — they listened to the needs of their students and developed a whole new modality of learning. Called Online Live, it allows students to take real-time classes remotely.

It’s an entirely new take on what virtual learning can do for students, and it’s the kind of innovation you might expect from a school with decades of experience in online learning.

Students who’ve been in online programs will be able to identify how this modality overcomes the always-on burnout that working-at-your-own-pace programs can cause. This learning experience is great for students who know that asynchronous learning isn’t a good fit, and/or students who know they want a level of real-time interaction from their professors and peers. (All with the benefit of not having to spend 45 minutes in traffic to do so.)

Whichever option your institution chooses, the important thing is to be watching. Just like 9/11 changed how we think about travel forever, it’s likely that, among other things, COVID-19 has changed how students think about online learning forever.

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Scott is a data-driven enrollment professional with two decades of experience directing the marketing and enrollment efforts of major universities. In his role as Senior Strategist, Scott serves as a knowledgeable consultant to our clients, providing them with expert guidance in the areas of on-site and remote enrollment, student searches, CRMs and higher education marketing.