By Jerry Mooney

The lack of diversity in the nursing workforce is an issue of critical importance to those concerned with reducing health disparities and inequalities faced by minorities. But there are signs that solutions to this monumental problem could be on the horizon, spurred by philosophical and technological changes in our nation’s higher education institutions.

Significant evidence is starting to accumulate that suggests that the increasing popularity of online higher education is helping to remove barriers that previously kept lower income and minority populations from pursuing advanced degrees.

Perhaps the strongest indicator of the correlation between online degree programs and an uptick in positive outcomes for disenfranchised social groups comes from Arizona State University.

Under the guidance of President Michael Crow, ASU became a pioneer for traditional universities to fully adopt an online model with the launch of ASU Online in 2008.  One of Crow’s stated goals with this effort was to curb unequal access to higher education.

Since its inception, ASU has continued to innovate and progress its programs to better meet the needs of their minority students. This year the university launched the Global Freshman Academy, which allows prospective freshmen the chance to explore, learn, and complete courses before applying or paying for credit.  The university has also partnered with Starbucks, allowing Starbucks employees to receive an online education for free.

The university’s efforts have paid off--Arizona State University graduates the highest percentage of at-risk, minority, and non-traditional students in the country. Under Crow’s watch the population of minority students enrolling at ASU has increased by 62%.

As it relates to nursing programs specifically, many studies point to the reasons why minority group members don’t pursue nursing degrees, which include economic barriers, and lack of flexibility in academia. These concerns considered, the diversity gap could potentially be bridged by the pursuit of their nursing degree online.

Online degree programs provide the flexibility, accessibility, and decreased cost that bar many minority students from pursuing an education. Students are able to access their courses at any time, meaning that parents, working students, and distance learners have the option of attending classes, on their own time.

This is an important factor to consider, as a  staggering 73% of undergraduate nursing students are considered non-traditional.  Statistically, nursing students are over the age of 25, enrolled part time, have dependent children, and are working full time while pursuing their education.

While these barriers make it difficult to attend college in a traditional environment, studies indicate that the non-traditional student population are exactly the kind of students that flourish in an online educational environment.

Online education is also a cost effective model. By admitting larger numbers of students, online programs become a cheaper alternative to the traditional education model. When you consider that minorities are more likely than their white counterparts to take on student loan debt, the decreased cost may allow minority students an easier path to financial security after graduation.

Other schools have since followed Arizona State’s model. In 2013, Georgia Tech began offering a master’s degree in computer science, delivered through a series of massive open online courses for just $6,600, and the University of Virginia’s tackled the question of affordable access through what administrators called the “Commonwealth University.”

Distance nursing programs continue to flourish and are a popular alternative to traditional learning. Accessibility to the Web, program choices, and convenience contribute to the expansion and acceptance of this approach to nursing education. Experts agree that distance programs may help to ease not only the critical nursing shortage, but can also provide solutions to the lack of nursing educators as well.

While many nursing schools around the country have successfully increased the racial and ethnic diversity of their student populations, there is still a severe shortage of people of color represented in the field. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses, nearly 83.2 percent of nurses surveyed were white.

Minority populations have been historically underrepresented in nursing, which is a problem for the profession and for the population it serves. Minorities are statistically more likely to receive less and lower-quality health care and suffer higher mortality rates than their white counterparts.

Numerous studies have shown that patients are more likely to receive quality preventative care and treatment when they share race, ethnicity, language, or religious experience with their providers. Nurses from ethnic and racial minority groups have their lived experiences to rely on, and can bridge cultural gaps that white nurses might not be able to.

Hopefully the early indications that higher education’s adoption of online learning models could lead to increased outcomes for minority nursing students prove to be sustainable.  Because it is proven that diversity matters for quality care.

The Great Recession had a devastating impact on the higher education system. Facing what would amount to insurmountable budget cuts, universities inflated tuition costs, and cut spending, forcing students across the country to pay more for colleges that offer less. As a result, students have amassed trillions of dollars in student loan debt, yet are still ill prepared for the workforce.

Observers have since concluded that the state higher education in America has long been on an unsustainable path. Despite the fact that elite American institutions rank highly among world universities, these schools have increasingly become highly selective and prestigious merely because of who they exclude. Quality educations that are worth the hefty bill are inaccessible to the majority of the population. For those relegated to mid tier universities--it’s questionable whether or not there is value in pursuing an education.

An unstable economic climate combined with diminishing quality of instruction have led many to the conclusion that the system of higher education is in need of a complete overhaul, but what might that future look like?

In his book, Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities, Richard DeMillo argues that the redemption of the higher education system rests in the hands of revolutionaries willing to write a new social contract; one that would ensure that an institution’s quality would be judged by how well it serves the people it is intended to serve, not by how many of them it excludes. These are ideas he expands in Revolution in Higher Education, where he documents the innovators who have taken  on the task of changing the system.

Innovation began in 2012 with the advent of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Jennifer Widdom opened their class to a larger audience. When their courses were finally offered on Stanford’s open learning website, an unprecedented 150,000 students signed up. Shortly after, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, offered a free version of his artificial intelligence course via web platform. Once again, 150,000 students joined.

Across the country at MIT, Professor Anant Agarwal used open courseware to teach an online version of his required engineering course to over 160,000 students, promising he would provide an MIT-branded certificate to any student able to complete the course.

These Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) caused a rift in educational pedagogy. Educators embraced to the idea of using technology to enhance the learning experience and make education more accessible. The advent of these courses ensured that technology would be an important facet in the  future of higher education, but leaders had a difficult time coming to an agreement about how much change was needed and how quickly it should come. There were outspoken administrators however, who made sweeping changes to their universities shortly after the recession.

One such administrator was Arizona State University president Michael Crow, a once lonely critical voice in the higher education debate, who surmised that research universities had become too exclusive in their quest for prestige and high rankings. Fully believing that unequal access was a threat to higher education, he created the New Gold Standard for American universities.

Under Crow’s guidance, Arizona State University launched its online degree program, one of the first of its kind to allow students to earn their degree from anywhere in the world entirely through an online platform. His efforts to make higher education more accessible have paid off--Under Crow’s watch the population of minority students enrolling at ASU has increased by 62%.

In the years following, ASU has continued to innovate and progress its online programs to better need the needs of students. Recently, an Environmental Studies course introduced gamification, allowing students to immerse themselves in games where content and curricula are experienced contextually. This year, the program unveiled its Global Freshman Academy allowing students to explore, learn, and complete courses before applying or paying for credit.

Other schools have since followed suit. Georgia Tech begun to offer its prestigious computer science course at 20 percent of the on-campus cost, and the University of Virginia’s tackled the question of affordable access through what administrators called the “Commonwealth University.”

The advent of the MOOC coupled with the rapid prevalence of online degrees sparked an unexpected shift in higher education. If the progress of these revolutionaries continues, they will have changed the way education is delivered, altered the economics of running a university, and the nature of the social contract between institutions and society. For higher educational institutions to survive in the future, they will have to add value beyond a simple recital of information, as the use of technology will allow more students to access quality information at a fraction of the cost.

In the wake of economic instability, universities have lost sight of the people they are intended to serve. The revolution in higher education seeks to change the social narrative, making quality instruction a global right. The future of higher education demands a drastic shift, where the quality of an institution is based on inclusion, rather than exclusion.

Jerry Mooney is co-founder and managing editor of Zenruption and the author of History Yoghurt and the Moon. He studied at the University of Munich and Lewis and Clark College where he received his BA in International Affairs and West European Studies. He has recently taught Language and Communications at a small, private college and owned various businesses, including an investment company that made him a millionaire before the age of 40. Jerry is committed to zenrupting the forces that block social, political and economic justice. He can also be found on Twitter@JerryMooney 


Feature photo courtesy of Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license