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Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Director of the National Council for Online Education

The Impact of “At-Scale” and Mega-U Degrees

The landscape of online higher education is changing with the growth of mega-universities and the advent of scores of MOOC-sized at-scale degree programs from prestigious universities.

Mid and small sized 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 top, prestigious universities. Starting just five years ago in 2015 with the Georgia Tech Online Master’s of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS), 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 3-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 this 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 programsWith a high percentage of their 90,000 students online, UMUC 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-sized 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-sized 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% of the colleges and universities in the US will close or merge in the next twenty years.

So, what is to be done for the mid and small sized 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 sized 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, MBA, Communication and other broad, traditional degree programs, they will be better served by specializing in sub-fields 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, 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?


This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed’s Inside Digital Learning blog. 

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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