Adult Learner Demand

2018 Predictions for Higher Education

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Once again, I am throwing caution to the wind with some predictions for the coming year. (For a look at my form, please see an assessment of my 2017 forecast.) Of course, predicting the future blurs what might plausibly happen with what one thinks ought to happen. Time will tell whether my predictions for higher education in 2018 prove prescient or just wishful thinking. This year, my three predictions—about the future of the bachelor’s degree, the potential for blended learning, and signs of life in the international online market—anticipate potentially game-changing innovations, at home and abroad, in response to palpable trends.

A regionally accredited 4-year institution, either for-profit or nonprofit, will unveil a rival to the bachelor’s degree.

A good amount of innovation in higher education boils down to accommodating one constant: the bachelor’s degree. Calendars, delivery mode, pedagogy, assessment, financial aid, textbooks, student support—you name it—have been re-worked to make the bachelor’s degree just a bit less expensive, time-consuming, and daunting. Some things, however, have not changed. The bachelor’s degree is still at least 120 credits and typically takes four to six years to complete; it’s no surprise that bachelor’s completion programs, targeting former dropouts, are such big business. Another tactic: squeezing everything into three years—so-called accelerated bachelor’s degrees—is for the brave few. Game-changing innovation would require a true alternative. Forget four years and 120 credits. The real question is what creative combination of pedagogy, experience, assessment, and delivery mode could produce the sort of outcomes the best bachelor’s degrees embody, but in much less time and at much reduced cost. And I do not mean a second-best or “vocational” option, but something better than the everyday bachelor’s. While regionally accredited schools cannot offer, say, a 60-credit program and call it a bachelor’s degree, they are free to develop original credentials of notionally any duration. Federal student aid is available for programs as short as 15 weeks, and the current draft reauthorization of the Higher Education Act put forward by the House would lower that to 10. I am not advocating a 10-week bachelor’s alternative, but there has to be some fertile ground between 10 weeks and four years. Yes, there is the associate’s degree, but it is either a stepping-stone to the bachelor’s or treated as a poor relation. Just as we value institutional, delivery mode, and field-of-study diversity in higher education, it is time to end the monoculture of the bachelor’s degree. I think that sufficient pressure is building to force a breakthrough in 2018. Student debt defaults are ballooning, and concentrated among dropouts who owe much less than the median for bachelor’s graduates. The national eight-year graduation rate, released for the first time in 2017 for part-time and second-time undergraduates—less than 50%—should give prospective students and institutions pause. This year, look out for a credential newcomer that will really shake things up.

A major American university, for-profit or nonprofit, will launch a groundbreaking blended learning brand.

There has been a longstanding discrepancy between prospective adult student interest in blending campus and online delivery, and institutional tendency to push more-or-less fully in-person, or fully online, programming. Eduventures’ 2017 Adult Prospect Survey found that a majority of prospects desire some mix of online and campus. The problem is that this blended expanse is ill defined. Institutions are unsure how much campus or in-person time busy adults will tolerate, and worry that when reality bites online convenience will trump any supposed benefits of in-person interaction. An alternative concern is that any concession to online flexibility will give students a taste for it and the campus will suffer long-term. Most institutions position delivery mode as simply a matter of personal preference. Surely, this is wrongheaded. Delivery mode is fundamental to the student experience, not isolated from teaching and learning. By leaving it to students to decide, institutions concede an asset they should own. Prospects know enough to suspect that neither campus nor online alone offer the best experience. It is up to institutions to bring those instincts to life. Today’s online market is crowded and commoditized. Most online students live within a 50-mile radius, and bricks and mortar define most institutions. Ultimately, institutions need online to strengthen physical presence not undermine it. Urban areas offer plenty of market potential. In 2018, weak adult demand and a glut of online programs will prompt some ambitious institutions to stake a claim to blended learning.

The cross-border, international online market finally gets serious

Online learning used to be so ambitious. Yes, online programs are convenient for time-poor adults at home but institutions once fantasized about online conquering international markets. Schools without online offerings fretted that international student flows to the U.S. might be disrupted. It turns out there was no need to get excited. International student mobility to the United States surpassed one million for the first time in 2016, while international enrollment in online credit-bearing programs at U.S. schools clocked in at a mere 34,000 at the last count. Online graduate numbers are creeping up but undergraduate enrollment is actually down. Over the years, some schools have tried to grow online internationally but success stories are rare to say the least. In my view, the following factors point to a new lease on life for cross-border online learning:
  • Peak Mobility. Increased competition from other countries and the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Trump administration saw new international student enrollment in the U.S. decline in 2017.
  • Greater Openness. Key markets that used to ignore or look down on cross-border distance learning, such as Hong Kong and Dubai, are beginning to cautiously embrace it.
  • MOOCs. With the likes of Harvard and MIT in the forefront, MOOCs have transformed the reputation of online learning internationally and opened up new pedagogic and business models. A handful of MOOC-style degrees from top U.S. schools, such as University of Illinois’ iMBA, will appeal to domestic and international audiences alike.
  • Room for Growth. The domestic online market in the U.S. will only get more crowded, forcing schools to look elsewhere.
And there is one more interesting development. Arizona State University (ASU), a contender for the most ambitious U.S. university in recent years, recently became the only institution in the world with official permission to market online degrees on the ground in Dubai. The emirate has long insisted that at least 50% of any recognized degree offered in its territory is delivered face-to-face. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the Dubai government agency that oversees foreign education providers in the emirate’s free zones, is aware of the growing credibility of online learning around the world, and sees ASU’s presence there—it will promote 29 fully online master’s degrees—as a valuable trial. If one of the world’s most forward-thinking universities and one of the great global student hubs that hosts the most international university branch campuses on the planet are combining for online learning, then change is in the air. Online could help Dubai expand graduate programming, and boost human capital by making further education more convenient. Cross-border online learning has always over-promised, and ASU will have to work hard to win over skeptics. But if the Dubai authorities judge ASU’s presence a success, other hubs like Singapore, Malaysia, and China will take notice. U.S. universities tend to have much more experience with online learning than their counterparts in other countries, potentially turning domestic online success to international advantage. Expect one or two other big U.S. online players to make a bold international move in 2018.

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