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What is today's most important higher ed story? The trend or development or change that we should all be thinking about? The thing that is going to have the greatest long-term consequences?

Most of us -- including me -- would likely answer COVID-19. We would talk about the pandemic's impact on everything related to how our colleges and universities operate. COVID-19 is currently at the center of every story about students and professors, courses and programs, tuition and degrees.

Questions of how our institution will manage COVID-19 and the short-/medium-/long-term effects of COVID-19 on the postsecondary ecosystem take up most of our brain space. (And even more this week, with the new homeland security rules for international students and online education that we are all trying to absorb).

We would all say that COVID-19 is the most important higher ed story of 2020. And we would all be wrong.

The biggest higher ed story of 2020 is also the biggest higher ed story of 2019, and will likely be the biggest story for the balance of this decade.

That story is the development of online degrees at scale.

It may feel impossible to believe at this moment, but at some point, we will get past COVID-19. I'm a pessimist in terms of timing, as I could foresee a four-year timeline until an effective vaccine is developed, tested, disseminated and adopted. (I hope I'm wrong on this one.) But at some point, we will get past this. That is why it is so important to keep our eyes on the horizon.

The innovation of online degrees at scale is their costs. By going to scale, schools can dramatically drive down tuition prices and fees.

The total cost of Boston University's online M.B.A. is $24,000.

The total cost of Illinois's iMBA is less than $22,000.

Immediately, you will object that there is no way that a master's degree that is a quarter (or an eighth) of the cost of a traditional degree is any good. With higher education, you get what you pay for. Isn't a low-cost degree a low-quality experience?

Even if you are right about degrees at scale in 2020 -- what about in 2030? Or 2035? Innovations take a long time to evolve. In thinking about online degrees at scale, we should do so through the perspective of Amara's law. When it comes to innovations, we tend to overestimate their impact in the short run and underestimate their impact in the long run.

It may take us a full decade to figure out how to deliver quality at scale. This work will inevitably involve advances in peer learning and AI. All of which will enable educators to carefully target attention and interventions.

To give you an idea of why I think online degrees at scale is such a big deal, I want to talk about my younger daughter. She is a rising junior, majoring in elementary education and attending a public flagship institution.

To work as a teacher, she will need to get her master's in education. She will need three things from within the certification (and a degree) that a master's program provides:

  1. Subject matter expertise and the ability to demonstrate those competencies.
  2. Guidance, coaching, mentoring and support.
  3. A social peer group of learners.

She will not need in her master's of education: a) an elite brand to confer the diploma, b) a campus experience, c) exclusive guidance, coaching and mentoring from professors.

My younger daughter should get all that she needs from her master's of education, and nothing of what she doesn't need, from an online degree at scale.

Even in these dark days of COVID-19, the time is now for almost every college and university to start to think about online degrees at scale.

Over the next few years, what will happen is that very quickly, most residential and high-priced master's degrees will disappear. They will be replaced by fewer schools offering low-cost online degrees. Right now, most schools can carve out a place in that new master's degree future. But the clock is ticking.

What will happen to undergraduate degrees? Nobody knows. Will they follow the path of master's degrees and begin to shift over to low-cost online degree options at scale?

This shift will likely occur, at first, at the margins. Online degrees at scale can't offer either the campus-based social experience of a traditional undergraduate degree program or the level of hands-on support that residential community colleges and nonselective four-year institutions can offer.

But that does not mean that grades 13 and 14 will not shift to online programs at scale. I wouldn't be surprised to see a significant portion of undergraduates enrolled in scaled online programs by 2030.

Even in these crazy days of COVID-19, the time to start building toward a future of high-quality/low-priced degree programs is now.

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