The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

Migrating the Headwinds of Higher Education: How UPCEA-Partnered Research Helps Guide the Way

A person (Jim Fong) smiles at the camera

By Jim Fong

Higher education has been in a state of flux for the past five years, trying to maintain the strengths of its business model while adapting to new market conditions. For many institutions, they are choosing to transform, acknowledging the beginning of the demographic cliff and an automated economy. Recent data from the National Student Clearinghousei shows that higher education has likely arrived at the cliff, despite undergraduate enrollments growing slightly by 2%. The data shows that much of the growth is a result of an uptick in community college enrollments, transfer students, dual enrollment high school students and credit certificate completers. Contrary to the growth, first-time student enrollments have actually declined by 3.6%. Further compounding this decline is the growing perception that a college degree has less value in a future economy fueled by automation and artificial intelligence.

As a result, many colleges and universities will need to re-examine not only their primary product, the degree; but how it serves the student of the future via the delivery of education, the credentials they offer, and how they engage prospects and enroll them into their processes.

UPCEA has made it a priority to help its members navigate uncertainty through data gathering and thought leadership. In addition to regular UPCEA research initiatives, such as its biannual salary, organizational and staffing surveys, and monthly snap polls, UPCEA has partnered with several corporate members to identify key research issues. The highlights of these research initiatives from 2023 follow, but they tend to focus on two major themes … 1) what external market forces are saying and 2) readiness of online and professional units to serve future markets. Major research findings on the external market include:

  • Colleges will need to tap into the complex adult learner market to address their fiscal commitments. With the number of eighteen-year-olds declining over the next decade plus, colleges and universities have few choices to reach enrollment and financial goals. They can try and improve graduation rates, but this number is already more than 85%. Further compounding this is a growing opinion in the media and social media channels that many or more jobs may not require a college degree in the future. StraighterLine partnered with UPCEA on a study of 1,106 adults with some college but no degree. What we found out was that the adult learner has many different profiles, personas or market segments. However, what is common across the majority of adult learners is a need for greater milestone recognition, which could be awarding stackable certificates on their way to a degree; as well as acknowledgment of prior learning for experiences which clearly address competencies required as part of a degree. These learners want a college degree, but 120 credits is a bridge too far — while milestones such as badges or certificates will help them in their current job and provide insurance should their studies be disrupted. This study can be found here.
  • The role of employers will be critical as higher education is redefined. They hold much of the purse strings regarding employee training. With the exodus of the baby boomer in the workforce, more training and education decisions are being made by Millennial managers and Gen X’ers in the C-suite. Collegis Education partnered with UPCEA on a survey of over five hundred employers. What we found was that employers want a greater place at the table. They believe that training and education is a two-way street and that both the employer and institution can benefit by greater involvement from the employer. This research shows that employers not only want input on defining what the real-world curriculum is, but also to improve communication, processes and relationships. In doing so, UPCEA believes that the main critique of higher education by employers will be resolved: cost, value and return on investment. The whitepaper can be found here.

These two major pieces of partnered research, along with the Voice of the Online Learner Report and the 2023 EducationDynamics Online College Students Reportiii  are essential guides to gauge adult learner and employer perceptions, beliefs and opinions pertaining to institutions of higher education, the programs they offer and services that surround them. These four studies are must-reads regarding the state of the online and professional education marketplace.  

The second emphasis of UPCEA-partnered research focused on institutional readiness and operational effectiveness. Addressing these issues will help institutional members identify and leverage market opportunities while avoiding its pitfalls. A joint studyiv by AACRAO, Modern Campus and UPCEA revealed that online and professional education units must work more closely with their registrars and other institutional stakeholders to overcome internal or operational barriers to capitalize on opportunities. A number of other partnered research studies focused internally on other improvement and process areas, including:

  • According to a joint study by The EvoLLLution, UPCEA and CAUCE, the role and impact that professional and continuing education units have on the greater institution continues to increase. The study also shows that progress is being made as to resources needed to innovate and develop new programs and credentials, but opportunities for improvement do exist, including the integration and accessibility of operational metrics and enrollment data, as well as needed staff positions (particularly in marketing).
  • Given advances in technology, modern marketing approaches are critical to reach both the adult learner and employer. An UPCEA study conducted with InsideTrack revealed that nearly one-in-five institutions do not track enrollment funnel metrics. The study also revealed that, either through intentional planning or lack of ability, the percentage of inquiries that become “stealth applicants” has increased since 2019. The institution either has no idea how the applicant found them or has done such a great job of branding and communication that encourages an applicant to bypass the inquiry process and go direct to an application. The research also shows cycle time or “pipeline time” for credit and noncredit programs. This measure is critical as it forces the marketing and program teams to plan advanced milestones and engagements upstream from a program start date.
  • Institutions need to improve digital marketing efforts, especially their websites and student experience. There were two studies that UPCEA partnered with Search Influence on, one was a groundbreaking 2023 study of search engine optimization and website readiness, while the second soon-to-be-released study was conducted in early 2024 and highlighted digital marketing costs at the inquirer or student acquisition level. The 2023 study identified that many units have strayed from having their websites designed around the student experience. Many of the 100 institutional websites studied performed poorly on parameters such as accessibility, link authority, having appropriate title tags or meta descriptions and overall site health or authority.
  • Although there is increased momentum for alternative credentials, many institutions are struggling to establish consistent and scalable processes for developing and pricing these programs. This UPCEA study, supported by a grant from Walmart, found that despite widespread acceptance of alternative credentials, many institutions do not yet view alternative credentials as a strategic priority. This is evident in that 71% of survey respondents didn’t know the gross revenue generated by alternative credentials at their institution. It is a significant challenge to make arguments for resources and strategic importance without having the data to inform and guide decision-makers. It is also important to emphasize that organizations with longer experience in alternative credentials show more pricing variability than newer entrants. As institutions mature in this process, increased efficiencies, and prolonged success, can be obtained.


What is clear is that the online and professional continuing education unit has the potential to save the institution. At minimum, these units will play a major role in the success of their institutions as higher education is reshaped. In the future, revenues and enrollments will be less likely to be fully dependent on standalone bachelors and graduate degrees and will be diversified through stackable credentials, such as certificates and badges. Another UPCEA partnered research effort with ISACA confirms industry demand and forecasts, including those done by HolonIQ, further solidifying the need for more flexible, stackable certificates. While currently cloudy, the future of higher education is starting to take form in that institutions must expand beyond the 15.1 million undergraduates by tapping into 250 million adults in the U.S. through more flexible and stackable credentials, as well as reach global markets, many of which have been quicker to adopt microcredentials and other forms and delivery of higher education. To do so, institutions are going to need to change, improve and rethink their operations, further solidifying the need for more flexible, stackable certificates. 






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