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An Education Without Student Debt Has Even Olympic Champion Simone Biles Studying Online

World-champion gymnast Simone Biles enrolled in an online university to earn a degree while managing her training schedule.

Whether chosen for schedule flexibility, lack of a commute, affordability or just out of necessity during a global pandemic, distance learning is everywhere. From parents changing careers to workers updating skills to Olympic athletes working toward a degree, online education has never been in such a spotlight.

World Champion gymnast and four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles enrolled in the nonprofit tuition-free University of the People (UoPeople) in 2018, studying business administration. She is also one of its global ambassadors, promoting the school, which is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

“I committed to UCLA when I was a senior in high school and then I decided to not go forth with a scholarship, so I could train for the Olympics,” Biles said. “After the Olympics things got a little crazy, so I couldn’t go in the following semester. So I had been holding off school for a while till University of the People.”

Tuition-free doesn’t mean without any cost, because of admission and assessment fees, but it does mean a lot less debt for students.

“There are numerous scholarships [to pay for assessment fees], and I created one myself,” Biles said. “The Simone Biles Legacy Scholarship Fund is devoted to those in foster care and others. I was in foster care when I was younger, and I know what it’s like and the challenges involved. I want to make sure other foster kids get the same opportunity to pursue their dream of higher education.

“I became a UoPeople global ambassador because I truly think that everyone should have access to high-quality higher education no matter who they are or where they are from,” Biles said. “The (accreditation) and the accessibility along with affordability help to take it wherever I go. Student loans are a lot, and once you graduate, nobody wants student debt, so it’s kind of hard for students to imagine themselves in school. So it gives everyone an opportunity to join at a low fee. Ideally, everyone deserves a chance, and higher education is helpful for everyone in life and I think that everyone needs the same opportunity as other kids.”

Founded by Israeli-born social entrepreneur Shai Reshef in 2009, UoPeople has so far had 51,322 enrolled students from more than 200 countries and territories. The programs offered by UoPeople include health science, computer science, business administration and a master’s degree in advanced teaching. It also has academic partnerships with New York University, The University of Edinburgh, and University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), should students want to transfer to those institutions. The University of Edinburgh, for example, has an initiative specifically for students displaced from their homes and living in Scotland as refugees.

UoPeople has received support from the United Nations and donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hewlett Packard, Foundation Hoffmann and Oak Foundation and has entered corporate partnerships with tech giants including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and ASAL Technologies.

Distance learning is booming during the COVID-19 pandemic, and students are flocking to tuition-free options. (University of the People)

Distance learning isn’t new (think correspondence courses of old), and neither are online courses, such as those that people can take to earn certificates and upgrade skills. Free massive online-only courses, known as MOOCs, may have thousands enrolled in one class and no teacher interaction, including those edX courses through schools such as Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, free classes like these may not always count for college credit.

Pandemic’s effect on traditional colleges and universities

The pandemic has made even well-established colleges pivot rapidly to entirely new ways for students to participate in courses.

“For example, some (staff) have used virtual-reality technology to give students an immersive experience,” said Sally Sitou, International Media Adviser at the University of Sydney, “whether to learn about the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders or dissect a virtual reality animal. Others have designed more effective systems for real-time feedback from students, allowing them to tailor their delivery during the class.”

Travel bans for international students haven’t helped enrollment.

“For semester one at the census, we had 9.9 percent fewer students enrolled than we had planned for in 2020,” said Sitou. “Our domestic student numbers remained relatively stable; however, the global pandemic and the impact of travel bans on our international students resulted in enrollments 16.8 percent below our target for 2020, which has had significant revenue implications.”

Sitou said it was increasingly unlikely that first-semester enrollments for 2021 would be back to pre-COVID levels.

The University of Sydney isn’t alone. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found an overall 13.1 percent drop overall in incoming freshmen in the United States as compared with last fall and a 21 percent drop from two-year institutions. Total postsecondary enrollment in the United States was down 2.5 percent. It could be a watershed moment for education, online and off.

“This crisis meant that we had to rapidly try new things in the online education space,” Sitou said. “We’ve enhanced our digital literacy and are discovering new ways of delivering high-quality education. However, we know how valuable the campus experience is both inside and outside the classroom. Face-to-face learning and collaboration, practical hands-on experience, as well as networking and opportunities to participate in student clubs and societies all make for an immersive and richer student experience. We can’t wait to welcome our students back as soon as it is safe to do so.”

 

Online learning challenges, stigma

Online classes have limitations, whether the school is online-only or has a physical campus. The digital divide, students with disabilities, not having a conducive environment at home for learning, and power breakdowns in developing countries all place limits on online education.

The employment prospects for online students, once they graduate, remains an issue, as there is a notion that students graduating from these universities may not have the required skills and knowledge to thrive in the workplace. If employers haven’t heard of a school, they may assume it’s a fake credential or a diploma mill. But with online education becoming more widespread, maybe that stigma is on its way out.

Separated by vast distances in the Philippines, undergraduate student Eulyces Costales considers himself fortunate to have been enrolled in an online university, as he didn’t have to halt his studies due to the pandemic.

“I started studying at UoPeople in 2017, and back then COVID-19 wasn’t even a thing,” Costales said. “I feel fortunate that I am studying at UoPeople because unlike all of these other educational institutions that are just now transitioning to an online environment, UoPeople is at an advantage because it had been designed to be online right from day one.”

In years to come, employers will welcome graduates from online schools, Costales said, and the stereotype surrounding online graduates will change for good.

“Because of the pandemic, online learning is going to be more normalized and more mainstream,” Costales said, “and because of that, students who hold their degree from online learning institutions will be received more positively when they enter the job market.”

(Edited by Cathy Jones and Kristen Butler)