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The pandemic has accelerated trends that were already established in the past decade. Over the prior centuries, universities competed for students with other institutions, particularly in their region or with a reputation of success in comparable disciplines. Beginning in the 1990s, we saw the advent of online learning, which began to break down geographic advantages that had held through prior centuries. And yet, for the most part, colleges and universities both inside and outside the region competed against one another in the recruitment of students.

That began to change in 2011 and 2012 when the first truly massive-scale MOOCs were delivered. Not long thereafter came the collaborative massive consortia. Certificates and entire degree programs are offered on massive platforms. Now, competition from massive course providers such as Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, Udacity, Swayam, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, LinkedIn and scores of others are surging at the same time enrollments at colleges and universities are stagnating or declining.

You can explore the courses and numbers at Class Central. With just the top two, Coursera and edX, each accruing more than 100 million “duplicated” enrollments in the past 12 months and soaring growth rates, the signs are strong that these are becoming a dominant delivery mode for learners worldwide. Coursera just reported revenue increased an annual 38 percent to $102 million for the June 2021 quarter, with its enterprises and colleges segment growing 69 percent and 78 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, undergraduate college enrollment fell again this spring, down nearly 5 percent from a year ago. That means 727,000 fewer students. It is not just Coursera and edX that are serving millions more students with college-level learning opportunities; Udacity and other business vendors such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and LinkedIn continue to accelerate their enrollment growth in courses and certificate programs.

As many businesses have learned, it is a serious mistake to underestimate Google and Amazon. Now that they are in the mix, it would appear the sky is the limit for nontraditional vendors of education.

Just as the value of degrees earned online was questioned 10 and 20 years ago, so too are skeptics questioning the value of certificates offered by commercial platforms. The numbers show a different story. Amazon Web Services is the most popular cloud provider. A recent report from State of Cloud shows that “82 percent of hiring managers say cloud certifications make a candidate more attractive and 87 percent of hiring managers value hands-on experience and certifications over a university degree when evaluating candidates.”

Business Because does the math of comparing the ROI of investing in college and university career certificates compared to Google’s certificates:

Google Career Certificates can take less than six months to complete and students can apply their knowledge at the same time and increase their earning potential. The average entry-level salary for roles across the certificate fields is $63,600. With undergraduate courses taking three-plus years and MBA education taking upwards of a year, these courses may be attractive to someone looking to study and earn and gain the necessary qualifications to climb up the career ladder quickly. According to Coursera’s Learner Outcome Survey, 82% of Google certification holders reported a positive career outcome within six months.

Starting at $39 a month, the Google certificates are a bargain. The Balance Careers assesses the strengths of each of the certificates.

LinkedIn Learning offers some 16,000 courses and certifications. Edwize assesses a number of the LinkedIn offerings and concludes, “In our opinion, it is definitely worth it. First of all, you get access to an unlimited amount of courses for $29.99 per month, which is an excellent value for the price point.”

Beyond those mentioned earlier, there are Codecademy, Khan Academy and many more well-known online providers addressing a wide array of vendors across a host of topics. None of these were in the higher education space in any meaningful way a dozen years ago. Now, however, accelerated by the stay-at-home pandemic and the towering debt incurred by students in colleges and universities, these providers are carving out niches in the marketplace of education.

This year, colleges and universities are holding their heads above water due, in large part, to the federal funds that were directly received and that shored up state budgets. The promise of free community college may provide some more enrollments in the short term. But large-scale continuing assistance from the federal government is unlikely to sustain through the coming decades.

How do we prepare for the growing presence of large-scale, low-cost, for-profit providers that are customizing their learning to the ever-changing market? As we prepare to compete with Amazon, Google and other supersize competitors, can we find advantages for our high-priced, years-long degrees? Or do we resign ourselves to be outmaneuvered by the just-in-time business savvy of our new competition?

Standard business practices apply in the short term -- cut costs, redefine the customer base, connect more closely to employers in order to enhance our placement rates and student satisfaction, repackage the product, and heavily market digitally. This doesn’t preclude going back to alums to offer just-in-time high-value short-term certificates. Redouble efforts in professional and continuing education. Taking these actions can generate more revenue with low investment in the short term.

In the longer term, we have to reinvent the institution. We must find ways to outmaneuver Google, to compete dollar for dollar with Amazon, to respond to the breadth of LinkedIn Learning and to tap the expanding technical market of Microsoft, IBM and coding academies. We need to explore subscription rather than tuition models to support stacking of learning and credentials. Who is leading this reinvention at your institution? What role are you taking to accelerate change?

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