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Cracking the Crystal Ball: Sizing Up the Accuracy of Our 2017 Higher Ed Predictions

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In January 2017, I made five predictions for the New Year:

  • Trump will turn back the tide of for-profit school regulation
  • Top schools will launch MOOC degrees
  • A billionaire will found a new university
  • ACICS, the embattled accreditor, will be reinvented
  • A third big for-profit school will collapse

Research firms are always making giddy forecasts and market-changing predictions, but it is rare to see much reflection on accuracy. So almost a year on, was I right? Yes and no.

Predictions are rated on a 4-apple scale:

appleappleappleapple = Very Accurate

appleappleapple = Accurate

appleapple =  Somewhat Accurate

apple = Completely Wrong

Trump Will Turn Back the Tide of For-Profit School Regulation


Events have evolved in the general direction predicted.

In June, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, suspended implementation of the Gainful Employment and Borrower Defense rules, asserting lack of clarity and focus, and appointed new negotiators to fashion fresh regulations. But what shape new rules might take is far from clear. While DeVos has affirmed the need to hold schools with poor program outcomes to account and offer redress to cheated students, it is hard to imagine anything as onerous or open-ended as the Obama-era versions of these regulations.

Fighting back, attorneys general from 18 states are suing the Department of Education for not implementing Gainful Employment, but a judge is unlikely to force the government’s hand before the new round of negotiations are through.

Early word of GOP intentions for the Higher Education Act, overdue for reauthorization, strongly suggest more latitude for for-profits, federal aid for non-traditional providers, and a single accountability regime regardless of tax status. For-profit pet peeves like incentive compensation and the 90/10 rule may be relaxed or ditched.

In federal commentary more generally, there is a definite turn away from the four-year degree as the gold standard. Trump has called for five million apprenticeships by 2022, which would mean an increase of 4.5 million. DeVos has stated that while associate degree and non-degree pathways make sense for many, they suffer low status and some are ineligible for student aid. While this overlaps with Obama’s emphasis on community colleges, there is no sign of a Trump plan to bump up bachelor’s or graduate attainment.

Tax reform proposals, threatening exemptions dear to traditional schools, could be characterized as a full-bodied assault on nonprofit higher education.

How times have changed.

Top Schools Will Launch MOOC Degrees


This is indeed beginning to happen:

  • In April, Coursera announced two new degrees: a master’s in accounting from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (“one of the world’s 30 most powerful university brands”); and a master’s in innovation and entrepreneurship from HEC Paris, a top business school.
  • Illinois already offers two other degrees through Coursera: an AACSB-accredited MBA and a Master of Computer Science in Data Science. Notably, the MBA has over 800 students and costs $22,000 compared with the university’s traditional MBA that will set an in-state student back $59,000 and an out-of-state student $83,000.
  • EdX does not market any degrees but offers 41 MicroMasters—4-5 credit graduate courses—about half from U.S. schools. MIT, Boston University, Columbia, and Georgia Tech are among the U.S. universities involved. MicroMasters are free to try and it costs about $1,000 to obtain a certificate, which is eligible for academic credit if transferred into a conventional master’s program. Surprisingly, MicroMasters are positioned as valuable in their own right, more so than as a degree pathway, signaling institutional openness to the disruptive potential of these credentials.
  • FutureLearn, the third largest MOOC provider after Coursera and EdX, lists four master’s degrees from Australia’s Deakin University, but has announced no new degrees in 2017. Like its peers, the platform also offers a growing array of “programs”—a short series of courses, with the option of an inexpensive certificate.

It is premature to judge the success of these degree and degree-like MOOC efforts, but there is no question that the combination of top brands, short programs, and low prices is powerful.

A Billionaire Will Found a New University


This has not happened, at least not yet.

The inspiration for this prediction—42, the free coding “university” founded by French tech billionaire Xavier Neil, which opened a campus in Silicon Valley last year—continues to win publicity and awards. In October, 42 won a prestigious WISE award (i.e., the World Innovation Summit for Education: an education innovation effort backed by the Qatar Foundation), which recognizes “projects providing solutions to 21st century education challenges.”

Adjacent developments this year include:

  • WeWork’s acquisition of the Flat Iron coding boot camp
  • An intriguing, if cryptic, quote from Juan Garcia, Amazon’s global leader for career advancement: “we want to be a part of that breakfast conversation (between parents and their children when deciding on education options after high school) … we want to remove every barrier.”

Neither WeWork nor Amazon have criticized conventional higher education—and Amazon continues to offer tuition assistance to employees—but both are eying the value of integrating work and learning. Amazon’s as yet very small apprenticeship program is relevant here. The prospect of one of the country’s most successful start-ups and the world’s e-commerce giant making postsecondary education part of their model would put 42’s innovative but hard-to-scale campuses in the shade.

ACICS, the Embattled Accreditor, Will be Reinvented


ACICS says it has reinvented itself, but there is no sign yet that the federal government is convinced.

ACICS, the career school national accreditor, has made little progress in its bid to regain Department of Education recognition, without which its accredited institutions cannot use federal student aid. Lawsuits suspending federal action and alleging lack of due process have so far failed, but a further case is still pending.

On October 4, the agency, citing root-and-branch reforms, submitted a fresh application for federal recognition. The application notes that ACICS remains recognized by CHEA, the other “accreditor of accreditors,” which has called for a more formal and transparent review of the agency’s situation. Meanwhile, most, if not all, schools accredited by ACICS are actively seeking a new overseer.

This could go either way. The Trump administration might see the plight of ACICS as another example of federal overreach under Obama and rescue the agency. Or, it might regard the accreditor as a useful sacrifice to help push through broader higher education reforms.

A Third Big For-Profit School Will Collapse


This has not happened, but only because a number of major for-profit schools have come up with creative ways to avoid termination or strengthen their position:

  • EDMC is expected to be sold to the nonprofit Dream Foundation, a social services organization with evangelical Christian associations.
  • Kaplan University will become the online arm of Purdue University.
  • Capella and Strayer universities—two firms in strong shape—have announced plans to merge.

Zenith Education, the nonprofit company that took over the assets of the collapsed Corinthian Colleges, recently decided to close all but three campuses, citing poor fit with employer needs and inconvenient locations. It would be ironic if, despite Zenith’s heroics, the Corinthian curse strikes again. The other big for-profits show no signs of near-term existential danger, although one or two might still surprise.

A more favorable regulatory environment will not be sufficient to revive for-profit fortunes. The real question is whether for-profit providers—old or new—can fashion models that win on student experience, cost, and outcomes, and whether the smartest will sidestep universities and degrees entirely.

Final Tally

So how did I do? Well, out of a possible 20 apples, I scored 12, coming in at 60%. Look out for even more accurate™ 2018 predictions in early January.

Thursday, December 14 1:30pm EST In partnership with Civitas, join Eduventures Principal Analyst James Wiley to learn how institutions are seeing improvement in outcomes when they empower students, as well as the advisors, staff, and administrators who support them, with the right signals to guide decision-making along their journey. Understand the early signals that can help institutions identify students who might be at risk, know when to engage, and scale personalized support to every student who needs it.

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