Midsize and small regional universities are seeing the some of the largest declines in enrollments. In assessing the cause of this disproportionate decline, I believe not enough consideration is being given to the impact of the growing trend of low-cost degrees offered at scale by prestigious universities. Starting in 2015 with the Georgia Tech online master's of science in computer science, the field now has nearly 50 entries as of January of this year.
And many more are under development. The University of Pennsylvania is launching a baccalaureate in applied arts and sciences. The formerly exclusive 2U initiative has announced plans for their three-year online baccalaureate in collaboration with the University of London. It is priced at $24,000.
Dwahl Shaw, founder of Class Central, a site that follows closely the MOOC-based marketplace, says “the big change in 2018 was MOOC-based degrees. We ended 2017 with seven universities announcing 15 degrees, and in 2018 30 more universities joined in and launched more than 45 degrees. I think we'll see more of this in 2019, too.”
At the same time, the so-called mega-universities continue to grow. SNHU is bumping up against 100,000 online students. Western Governor’s University, a pioneer in competency-based education, now claims more than 110,000 students, mostly online. Arizona State University enrolls nearly half of its 72,000 students in online programs. With a high percentage of their 90,000 students online, UMUC’s enrollments are again on the upswing. Meantime, the University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University, Liberty University and American Public University continue to serve very large online populations numbering in the many tens of thousands in each case.
Added together, the rapidly growing MOOC-based degree programs with the more traditional class-size mega-universities, we may soon see more than a million students served efficiently and economically through these modes in the near term. Lee Gardner posits the business-forward thinking of these market-driven institutions:
While some so-called mega-universities have physical campuses, they’ve focused intensely on building online programs. They’ve emphasized recruiting working adults over fresh high school graduates. They’ve embraced competency-based education, in which students earn credits from life experiences and from demonstrating proficiency in a subject. They market widely and vigorously, and lean into, rather than recoil from, some other common corporate practices and philosophies. These universities have clearly found a new way to play the game that many colleges are losing.
At the same time we see these growth areas, overall college enrollment continues to decline for the eighth straight year. Combining the overall college enrollment decline with the growth of mega-universities and at-scale low-cost, but high-prestige, degree offerings, a vision of the future is coming into focus. There are fewer and fewer students to be served by the small and medium-size regional universities. That accelerates the death cycle of rising tuition, fewer students, lower revenues and, ultimately, more closures and mergers. This recently prompted Harvard’s Michael B. Horn to predict that 25 percent of the colleges and universities in the U.S. will close or merge in the next 20 years.
So, what is to be done for the midsize and small universities to survive in this environment? In the near term, it appears that at-scale programs will be launched in popular, broad degree areas; the same for most mega-universities. That leaves more highly specialized, emerging market, just-in-time degree and certificate programs that meet the needs for newly forged career paths. Such programs will find an audience that is not yet large enough for the bigger institutions to consider offering at scale.
In order to take on these emerging online program areas, the small and medium-size institutions must be in close touch with business and industry. They must anticipate the emergence and growth in new fields. They must be nimble and decisive to move ahead with these new programs. Rather than competing head-to-head with computer science, M.B.A., communication and other broad, traditional degree programs, they will be better served by specializing in subfields that are just now emerging. Leadership in these areas may have only a five or six-year life cycle, but through continuous development of new programs, the smaller institutions will best attract new students and ultimately help the institutional bottom line.
There are important questions to raise on your campus, whatever the size. How will we compete in the changing landscape of the future of higher education? Are we identifying the emerging needs in society? What are our strength areas in which we might best launch new initiatives? Where do we fit in that emerging landscape? Are we prepared to support innovation and leadership in new fields? And who will lead?