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2020: The Year in Review (Part 3)

2020: The Year in Review (Part 3)


Note: The following article is a summary of all of the blog articles that appeared on the Wally Boston blog from July through September of 2020. This article is part 3 of a three-part series.


Relaxing restrictions on ebooks had to be a conundrum for publishers during the height of COVID-19 infections, and an article in Wired magazine triggered my response. Aarian Marshall reported that checkouts of digital books from public libraries had increased 52 percent since March, and that publishers reported that the easy availability of digital books was hurting book sales.

Since 2011, the big publishers had limited library lending of ebooks by time or by number of checkouts and increased the charge per electronic copy to $20-$65, compared to the $15 that an individual would pay for the same ebook. Some of the publishers extended discounts to libraries during the pandemic, and some did not. I noted that publisher pricing has led many in academia to contribute to the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, and that APUS has led the way including the development and sponsorship of The International Journal of Open Educational Resources.

Former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, penned an op-ed in Slate magazine, arguing that it’s time to make a national investment bringing broadband internet to everyone in America. I wrote a commentary supporting the expansion, not only rurally, but in poor inner-city neighborhoods as well. Gov. Bush argued that we are creating a nation of digital haves and have-nots in the classroom, and I agreed.

Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce released a report examining various proposals for free college. I critiqued the report and noted that slippage in public funding during a period when public tuition increased 19 times faster than the median family income is not the only explanation when the authors leave out the fact that tuition, fees, and room and board increased much higher than the Consumer Price Index (CPI) at the same time.

I argued that none of these plans have circuit breakers or cost controls to keep costs from spiraling out of control. None of the plans have incentives to align high school curriculum with colleges and none of them have incentives to reward alignment of curriculum with the current and future job market.

“Observing the Pandemic Effect on the Restaurant Industry” was inspired by my observation of the temporary (and some permanent) closures of restaurants nationwide, and the fact that no special bailout was provided to the industry by Congress. I wrote that I would keep my fingers crossed that restauranteurs could survive until the vaccine is widely distributed and infection rates decrease substantially.

The Community College Research Center at Columbia University published a report analyzing successful dual enrollment programs at community colleges in three states. I wrote an article commenting on the report and recommendations. I commended the work of the researchers and concluded that the report would make a great playbook for states looking to establish or improve the outcomes of a dual enrollment program.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce continued its issuance of reports with the publication of one titled “Buyer Beware – First-Year Earnings and Debt for 37,000 College Majors at 4,400 Institutions.” I commented that the results were not surprising or alarming. I applauded the Department of Education for continuing to expand information available through its College Scorecard but noted that until data from all students/graduates are included, the Scorecard may be misleading.

I also noted that none of the higher-level degrees (bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral) aggregates debt and tuition cost data from the previous degrees earned by a student. At the same time, debt from multiple institutions at the same degree level is now included.

The National Student Clearinghouse issued the first of two Fall 2020 enrollment reports. The report created headlines in most of the higher ed news, given that first-time freshmen students were down 16.7 percent overall while down 22.7 percent at community colleges.

I wrote an article highlighting the report and stated that the decrease in enrollment of freshmen students was not surprising, given the disruption to their senior year and the limited assurances provided to them by colleges as late as August. I also commented that the increase in enrollment for for-profit, four-year colleges was likely due to their long-term commitment and development of online programs.

Inside Higher Ed’s co-founder and editor Doug Lederman wrote an article about the pathways of transfer for students from two-year to four-year colleges based on a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed. Mr. Lederman argued that the incentives for four-year institutions to provide smooth processes for transfer are greater now than they have ever been.

I reported the results and commented in an article that the processes and policies needed for smooth pathways to transfer are neither new nor do they require rocket science to assemble. Four-year institution administrators need to take notice of the disparities in the survey, recognize there is more than a communication problem, and monitor the number of credits transferred versus attempted from two-year colleges to their institutions.

Dr. Joshua Kim penned in his Inside Higher Ed blog that online learning is the future of higher education, similar to electric vehicles being the future of the automobile industry. Drilling down to the course level of higher ed and the product level, Dr. Kim wrote that large face-to-face lectures are the F-150 of higher education.

According to Dr. Kim, deep and immersive online learning experiences will eventually replace large lecture classes. I wrote that Dr. Kim’s analogy was perfect, as was his conclusion that colleges and universities that fail to invest in developing highly resourced online courses to replace their large lecture classes will be at a competitive disadvantage post-pandemic.

A Harvard Business Review article written by Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury about the future of “work-from-anywhere” post-pandemic triggered a review by me. Professor Choudhury cites the research indicating that the upsides of work from anywhere are clear. I recommended reading the article and agreed with Dr. Choudhury that the pandemic has accelerated changes in work and in education.

Just prior to the U.S. Fall 2020 elections, The Economist published a cover series about who should control free speech on social media sites. Among the ideas suggested by the editors was that users of social media platforms should be given the right to choose news feeds set by a neutral algorithm, not an attention-grabbing one. The editors also suggested that tech firms resist getting dragged into every single politically inspired debate.

In my commentary, I agreed with the editors that leaders of platforms should try to avoid being censors short of censoring posts designed to trigger uprisings and violence. I agreed with their recommendation allowing users to select neutral news feed algorithms. We need to be able to deselect news feeds that may prey on our emotions.

The New York Times published an article about the coronavirus’s fall resurgence leading to an increasing number of deep expense cuts at colleges and universities as well as proposed mergers, closures, and consolidations of institutions. My commentary stated that unless the next Congress and the White House chooses to fund the $120 billion shortfall for higher ed claimed by the American Council on Education, the number of institutions announcing that they will close will substantially increase.

The College Board’s annual Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid was issued at the end of October. I provided commentary noting that much of the data is based on averages. Averages may or may not be relevant indicators when there is a large and widely ranging group of institutions. The report is lengthy; the data presented is extensive. My article provided an excellent summary of the points that I thought should be highlighted.


Robert Kelchen, an associate professor at Seton Hall University and financial aid expert, was commissioned by higher learning advocates to write an article about using earnings metrics for accountability. I wrote about his paper and his conclusion that earnings metrics designed for consumer information or high-stakes accountability should be designed with caution.

Dr. Kelchen provides great detail on the three major sources of earnings data for graduates as well as six high level questions that need to be asked and answered while designing accountability metrics. He predicts that higher stakes accountability initiatives are likely to be at the program level for graduates only, while institutional earnings metrics will be used more for consumers. I concluded that the right metrics are only available when a national student database including all students is created, something that the College Scorecard does not provide.

I penned “Thoughts on Election 2020 and the State of Our Country,” which was posted early in the morning of the 2020 election. I was not optimistic that things would change in Washington, regardless of who won the election for President because our country and our politicians are so divided. I thought that the projected voter turnout for the election was a good sign.

“Post-Election 2020 Thoughts and the Need for Term Limits” was written a week after the 2020 election. I criticized the spending of $14 billion on the election and $6.6 billion on the presidential election alone. Democratic candidates outspent their Republican opponents nearly two to one. I wrote that term limits might be a good idea to reduce the barriers to cooperation between representatives and senators, and that we need to find ways to break down barriers, rather than putting more of them in place.

“Gainful Employment Regulations Are Good, if Applied to All Institutions” was the title and subject of an article I wrote commenting on the initiatives that President-elect Biden was supposedly working on. I have consistently made this point since the regulations were first proposed in 2010. College tuition is too high, and some of the highest priced institutions are non-profits. I cited articles written by Richard Vedder and Andrew Gillen that provide research supporting my position.

The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) updated its first fall 2020 enrollment report with a second report. My review included comments from several other publications.

With 76 percent of institutions submitting data, the NSC reported that all four sectors of higher ed reported declining undergraduate enrollments for the fall. Enrollments at institutions with at least 90 percent of their population enrolling online were the only sector that showed an overall increase at the undergraduate level. I commented that the greater risk to institutions serving a larger online population is that the post-pandemic job market may be vastly different than the job market four to six years from now, since permanent changes take a while to flow through industries and companies.

“Grand Challenges in Assessment: Collective Issues in Need of Solutions” included my comments about a recently published paper by Karen Singer-Freeman and Christine Robinson for the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA). Their 10 Grand Challenges can be solved, they write, by evolving assessments from a compliance-oriented role toward an improvement-oriented role. I concurred with their challenges and recommendations, and I noted that the shift from compliance toward improvement would enable institutions to become much more market-savvy.

“Is This the End of Traditional College as We Know It?” reported about a 2020 Wall Street Journal article written by Doug Belkin that concluded that “college for all” was a bad idea and Americans are realizing that, which is why traditional enrollments are declining. Mr. Belkin also wrote that Americans are not turning their back on education but are reconsidering how to obtain it.

I wrote that Mr. Belkin’s opinions are not new and cited a 2009 blog post of mine, in which I was skeptical of the merits of President Obama’s goal to increase the number of college graduates. Evidence supports that not all degrees are alike in return on investment and not all jobs require a two-year or four-year degree. I wrote that it’s up to the new administration to decide whether to look at a blank canvas or choose to repaint sections of a worn, old painting, no longer relevant to much of its audience.

“A Year of Grand Challenges or a Year for Grand Challenges?” was perhaps the wrong title for an article that I wrote. I began by discussing the EDUCAUSE and NILOA Grand Challenges for IT Transformation and Assessment, and then criticized the recently published NACUBO “State of Higher Education in 2020” report. NACUBO represents higher ed’s finance officers and the report, in my opinion, lacked a realistic grounding in today’s environment as well as any innovative recommendations for colleges and universities to emerge from the current situation by implementing change. Instead, the paper was a call for investment and taking the long view. I disagreed.

Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines is the title of a recently published book by Lumina Foundation president Jamie Merisotis. I wrote a two-part review. Part 1 discussed the three problems that need to be overcome for individuals to be prepared for a world of human work. Part 2 discusses Mr. Merisotis’ recommendation that the U.S. develop a transparent credential system similar to the EU Europass (not the train pass popular in the 1980s and 1990s, but a skills passport).

In the future, the education system and the employment system will need to change their focus and look at learning, rather than education, and work, rather than jobs. I commented that this pathway is complicated, even though Mr. Merisotis provides a number of practical examples.

Also, I added that there are a number of risks for accomplishing the pathway proposed by Mr. Merisotis. The two biggest are the resistance to change by the established higher education institutions and the largest companies in the U.S. have opportunities for recruiting and hiring globally. I recommended reading the book, embracing it, and implementing changes based on the proposed pathway.

Burning Glass Technologies published a white paper about the high costs of failing programs in higher education. I wrote about the paper, which notes the high percentage of new programs initiated by colleges and universities that have less than 12 graduates a year, five years after initiation. The authors recommend doing more market research to develop degree programs that attract more new students.

While the metrics that Burning Glass suggests should be collected are metrics that it collects and provides to clients, they are by no means invalid. I noted that Burning Glass’s data collection consists of data from higher ed institutions as well as employers, and the combination can enable the partnerships between institutions that need to occur to fall in line with the pathways proposed in Jamie Merisotis’ book.

NYU Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway recently published his latest book, Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity. I reviewed it and concluded that there is much to like in the book, particularly in the chapter where he critiques higher education as an industry on the verge of major disruption.


The World Economic Forum engaged global marketing research firm Ipsos to survey 27,500 adults in 29 on how they see higher education being delivered in five years. The majority of adults surveyed believe that the split between online learning and in-person learning is here for the long run, and nearly 72 percent of the respondents said that higher education in their country would be conducted online at least as much as in person.

I wrote that a copy of the survey would likely not find its way to the desk of most college presidents in the U.S. At the same time, I wrote that the handwriting is on the wall; presidents of non-elite institutions will need to find other sources of revenue to replace residential student income post-pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education announced the latest additions and changes to the College Scorecard in early December 2020. I reviewed the changes from the perspective of a user looking at the data for APUS.

Professor Scott Galloway posted a 2020 article titled “The Great Dispersion” about the acceleration of the impact of technology for our lifestyles. I wrote about the article, specifically his points about the impact of the dispersion on community and empathy. I applauded Professor Galloway for including them and suggested that business leaders who want to be “winners” would evaluate the social and psychological impacts to their workforce and the communities in which they live.

The approval by the FDA of the first COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use triggered an article about the logistics of distributing hundreds of millions of doses across the U.S. I contacted Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth, APUS program director of transportation and logistics, for his thoughts. He commented that “the team approach between and among all members of this COVID-19 vaccine movement, storage, data tracking, transportation, delivery, and error history will be a new normal for this leading-edge logistics about to emerge in 2021.”

“What’s the Best Way to Create Innovation in Higher Education?” was the title of an article that I wrote about how leaders of institutions impacted by the pandemic and enrollment decreases might consider evaluating ideas and opportunities for innovating and implementing change. For institutions unable to access internal experts or able to afford outside consultants, I recommended a book, Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs.

I penned an article about The Lincoln Project and its influence on the 2020 presidential election. I noted that the media spending for the Georgia runoff election for its two U.S. senatorial positions had reached $440 million with weeks to go before the election.

“Zoom Social Hours” recounted my personal experiences in 2020 using Zoom for connections outside of work during the pandemic.

I reviewed Dr. Michelle Weise’s latest book, Long Life Learning – Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet. I recommended Dr. Weise’s book to all senior leaders in higher education and noted that ignoring the book won’t change the momentum.

The National Student Clearinghouse issued its final Fall 2020 enrollment report. I wrote about the report, which indicated that first-time freshmen students experienced the greatest decline in enrollments year-over-year and two-year colleges saw the greatest drop in that group of students. If a vaccine is successfully distributed in the U.S. over the next six months, it will be interesting to see if the enrollments rebound.

Lastly, I wrote an addendum to my review of Long Life Learning. Dr. Weise’s experiences and research had provided a number of interesting companies that were meeting or attempting to meet some of the components of her future education/work framework. Notably, many of them are using artificial intelligence to enable their functionality, efficiency, or effectiveness.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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