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How are online nondegree programs from institutions with strong global brands affecting the market for master’s degrees? Are we moving toward an environment in which in nondegree programs from the best-known universities will capture students who would have previously enrolled in graduate degree programs at nonelite schools?

The conventional-wisdom answer to these questions is no. The thinking is that nondegree online programs from elite institutions are inferior to full master's degrees from everyone else.

But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

What if instead of content and assessments, potential students want status and networks? Might it be that what drives the market for master’s degrees is not the diploma, but instead all the doors that a diploma can open? What if what students really want is not to be learners, but alumni?

A look at how a few elite schools handle alumni benefits for nondegree programs is illuminating.

Programs such as the advanced management programs at Harvard Business School, Penn's Wharton, Columbia Business School and Northwestern's Kellogg School all offer their nondegree graduates access to a number of alumni benefits.

These benefits may include:

  • A university email address.
  • Inclusion in an alumni directory.
  • Access to some alumni career services.
  • Some access to alumni clubs.

Other nondegree online and blended programs that offer some degree of alumni status include the UC Berkeley program in data science and data analytics, the Stanford executive program, and a number of executive programs from MIT.

Participation in these nondegree programs may not offer all the alumni benefits that graduates of the core degree programs receive. There is still some level of differentiation. But they may offer enough alumni benefits, and the right alumni benefits, to make participating in these nondegree programs a compelling value proposition.

The value of a nondegree credential with alumni benefits from an elite institution may alter the online program management market.

OPMs such as Emeritus and 2U are starting to build partnership businesses with top universities in the alternative credential space. Coursera and edX are both working to sign up partners with strong brands to offer alternative credentials such as professional certificates and MicroMasters.

It will be interesting to see what Pearson, Wiley and other OPM players do in this nondegree space.

If schools are willing to offer alumni benefits, and OPMs are willing to front the cash and resources to build nondegree programs, we may see a proliferation of elite alternative credentials.

What the implications of this possible trend will be for regional institutions offering traditional master's programs (both residential and online) is worth watching. Schools lacking global brands may very well have to fight even harder for master’s-level enrollees.

We are in new territory with online programs that provide an alternative credential and alumni benefits at the world's most prestigious universities. Given how important the master’s degree has become to the financial model of many universities, this is a trend that we will want to follow closely.

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