Innovation is not a term typically used within higher education circles. American higher education, rich in tradition and history, has been sometimes labeled a bureaucratic, traditionally mired venture that lacks ability to change with the times. However, this generalization of higher education is, in so many ways, incorrect. American higher education today represents one of the most innovative and complex postsecondary systems the world has ever seen. No other country in the world possesses the breadth and depth of comprehensive educational delivery like our uniquely American system. From the Ivy-Leagues to our sprawling research-one state-supported public institutions and from our historically church-affiliated private institutions to our world-renowned community college systems, America knows higher education.
Higher education in America has always played a vital role in underpinning our nation's economic growth through innovation. It was our own institutions of higher education that led research and development during the Cold War - keeping America one step ahead of its Cold War enemies. It was the American higher education system that embraced the education of hundreds of thousands of returning GI's from World War II - curbing an economic labor crisis in the 1950s.
During the civil rights movement, it was our own colleges and universities across America who led the charge to make college affordable and accessible to all - creating a bridge for uplifting the economic position of millions of Americans. In the 1970s, the burgeoning American community college system led the charge to tackle the monumental training needs of our workforce and to retrain dislocated workers from primarily manufacturing sectors to rising service and technology-based sectors-making America's workforce one of the most productive in the world.
So, in the midst of this current election, a conversation must ensue as to higher education's role in leading America, not only through this current economic crisis but into the 21 st century. Across many college campuses, one of the most innovative, yet sometimes controversial initiatives in recent years has been the development of online programs. While avoiding the philosophical debate between online educational delivery and traditional on-campus programs, it is more critical to discuss the philosophy of the creation of online learning and its relevance to American economic growth.
American success has always had its foundation in thinking beyond what is for what could be. Over the last 10 to 15 years, online learning has grown out of the specific needs of the American people. Today, this growth continues in response to America's changing economic and social climate.
Both students and administrators alike are turning to online education to help solve very critical and very real challenges. For students, the recent fuel crisis has led many struggling students to look for opportunities to reduce trips to campus. Online education has provided the appropriate solution. For school administrators, the high cost of building campus infrastructure and the subsequent utility costs to maintain such infrastructure has led to the development of more online courses for growing student populations.
But beyond the financial benefits of online learning to students and institutions, this growing segment of higher education provides yet another formula for economic growth: providing greater educational access to a broader spectrum of American citizenry. Education is the great social and economic equalizer. Through online education, single mothers without the resources to attend on-campus day classes can now get an education online, which can help them secure better jobs and become leaders for their family and community. Individuals living in remote parts of the country with few college options can access greater educational choices and pursue a level of college education once only dreamed of.
From a corporate perspective, companies seeking to provide greater training resources to their employee base can now offer greater learning opportunities, on site, through online delivery. Worker productivity is enhanced by providing online educational delivery through self-paced learning that does not interfere with normal work hours.
Finally, an economic discussion of American online education cannot take place without recognizing its economic and goodwill potential within the global marketplace. Today, online education in America leads in reputation, acceptance, and accessibility when compared to educational systems in Western Europe, Asia, and around the world. This innovative and economic advantage has the potential to provide educational access to burgeoning populations around the world, restoring America's positive reputation on the world stage and providing intellectual transfer throughout the globe.
The philosophy behind the creation, development, and expansion of American higher education - particularly the rise in online education - provides only one example of American ingenuity, commitment to equality, and our embrace of change. It behooves our elected leaders and all American citizenry to continually reflect on these cherished hallmarks as we chart America's path toward economic viability in the 21 st century.
Tracy R. Stewart is the Vice President of Information Technology at Regent University, and has more than 25 years of experience and an extensive background in management and software systems development. She also serves as the Executive Director of the School of Undergraduate Studies.