Senior Partner & Managing Director; Global Leader, People & Organization Practice; former BCG Fellow
How can the use of digital technologies in postsecondary education impact students’ access to education, student outcomes, and the return on investment for students and institutions? What are the biggest challenges for an institution seeking to implement high-quality digital learning opportunities? What promising practices enable an institution to achieve impact at a larger scale?
Those are the questions that fueled a research study, conducted by the Arizona State University Foundation and The Boston Consulting Group, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The answers, at least in part, lie in the case studies of six colleges and universities: Arizona State University, the University of Central Florida, Georgia State University, Houston Community College, Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and Rio Salado Community College. The first three institutions in this list are public research universities, representing different geographic populations and access missions. The other three institutions include two community colleges and a state-wide community college system.
These six institutions have a strong track record of using digital learning to serve large, socioeconomically diverse student populations, and each has been a pioneer in innovating to expand access to postsecondary education, improve student outcomes, and provide higher education at an affordable cost. The diverse nature of the case study institutions underscores the point that colleges and universities can apply digital learning in various ways that take into account individual contexts. Within these various examples are promising practices that a wide variety of colleges and universities can adopt to meet disparate needs, from accommodating enrollment growth to addressing a decline in funding.
The study’s methodology was designed specifically to examine the ROI of digital learning under different conditions and scenarios. We carefully examined both the upfront and ongoing costs of supporting digital learning, as well the returns in terms of student access, student outcomes, and economic impact on both students and institutions.
The study found that when colleges and universities take a strategic approach to digital learning and invest in the design and development of high-quality courses and programs, they can achieve three critical objectives:
The findings provide a better understanding of how each institution adopted successful digital learning approaches and what impact they had. On the basis of our review of the six institutions, we identified seven promising practices:
Colleges and universities that want to increase enrollment, expand access to high-quality education, and improve student performance—all at lower cost—should strongly consider investing in the improvement and scaled enterprise implementation of high-quality digital learning. The accumulating evidence indicates that well-planned and well-executed digital learning can be enormously valuable for institutions and students. The evidence also demonstrates that the more experience colleges and universities obtain, the faster they can successfully scale up innovations.
Now is the time for leaders to champion the potential of digital learning to open the doors of higher education wider and to improve student outcomes, while operating more efficiently and at lower cost. The journey of each college or university will be unique, but the set of promising practices described in this report may serve as a useful guide for all institutions.