Adult Learner Demand

Grading the Accuracy of our 2018 Higher Ed Predictions

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Welcome to part 1 of Eduventures' Year in Review for 2018! Stay tuned as our review continues with the biggest lessons each of our analyst learned this year, and our Top 5 Wake-Up Call posts of 2018!

Back in January, I made three higher education predictions for 2018. This Wake-Up Call examines whether this year’s forecasts panned out. My 2018 conjectures were nothing if not ambitious. Throwing precedent and experience out the window, I predicted:

  • A regionally accredited four-year institution, either for-profit or nonprofit, will unveil a rival to the bachelor’s degree.
  • A major American university, either for-profit or nonprofit, will launch a groundbreaking blended learning brand.
  • The cross-border, international online market finally gets serious.

In other words, I envisioned that a college or university would be brave—or foolish—enough to question the bedrock that is the bachelor’s degree; another would fashion the best of campus and online into something better than either; and a number would see international traction in a market that, hype aside, has proven thoroughly domestic. Easy.

Predictions are rated on a 4-apple scale:

appleappleappleapple = Very Accurate

appleappleapple = Accurate

appleapple =  Somewhat Accurate

apple = Completely Wrong


Let’s consider each prediction in turn.

Prediction 1: A regionally accredited four-year institution, either for-profit or nonprofit, will unveil a rival to the bachelor’s degree.

Verdict: appleapple (Logic good, timing off?)

I am not aware of any regionally accredited university or college that has done this. But maybe this is the wrong place to look.

Start-ups have tried. Two that explicitly went up against the bachelor’s degree, MissionU and Good University, both struggled. MissionU dissolved when the founder was lured to WeWork, and Good University morphed into Arena Education, a bootcamp for women to break into marketing. Arena has also folded.

A promising sort-of-bachelor’s-alternative, launched in 2018, is Foundry College, spearheaded by Dr. Stephen Kosslyn, neuroscientist, one-time Harvard professor, and founder of Minerva, the cut-price “elite” blended bachelor’s institution. Foundry desires to scale up the successful-but-boutique Minerva model, targeting working adults rather than adventurous high school grads.

But Foundry’s alternative to the bachelor’s is—wait for it—an associate degree. This reflects the tensions innovators face. Stray too far from higher education norms and risk consumer befuddlement, employer skepticism, and a lack of federal student aid. Stay too close and your exciting innovation might be mistaken for just another community college or training course. Would Foundry College make more of an impression with a new credential?

Another candidate is the recently announced partnership between Dominican University of California and Make School, a coding bootcamp. The two will co-develop a computer science bachelor’s degree-bootcamp hybrid, designed for students to complete in just 2-3 years. Still a bachelor’s degree, but a rather different one.

In my opinion, Udacity and its nanodegrees remains the best example of a bachelor’s alternative. The company now offers dozens of nanodegrees that cost a few thousand dollars each and are designed to be completed in under a year. Delivery is online but involves a thoughtful mix of media and a combination of self-paced and group activities. Tens of thousands of people are said to have graduated with a nanodegree, and the site is full of glowing testimonials.

But Udacity is tight-lipped about learner numbers, pass rates, job data, and what proportion of enrollees already have a degree. Laser-focused on in-demand technical skills, rather than character development the best bachelor’s degrees embody, the jury is still out on whether Udacity is more than a narrow talent gap solution.

Other veterans of the MOOC boom, Coursera and edX, are defined by university partners, and both now lead with online master’s degrees. Earlier this year, edX announced it had trademarked “MicroBachelors,” but whatever comes of that may be more bachelor’s pathway than true alternative. Universities may struggle to see innovation as anything other than a new way to offer degrees.

Georgia Tech—also discussed below—may be signaling plans to re-think the bachelor’s. The institution’s wide-ranging Creating the Next in Education report commits to the development of an alternative to the Carnegie Unit of learning, permitting shorter courses and microcredentials to better capture student achievement and increase flexibility. Georgia Tech’s focus appears to be the graduate level, but undergraduate innovation is not ruled out. Watch this space.

Prediction 2: A major American university, for-profit or nonprofit, will launch a groundbreaking blended learning brand.


Blended learning looks like a good bet. Prospective students, particularly adults, say they prefer blended over campus and wholly online. Research suggests blended students outperform. And, most institutions, rooted in campus and locale, might reasonably see blended as a smart way to integrate past and future. On the contrary, schools continue to tout 100% online programs, and any blending is left to faculty and student preference.

But one institution looks like it will fulfill my prediction. Georgia Tech has revealed tentative plans to launch a network of small physical sites, in the U.S. and internationally, to complement its main campus and large online presence. Despite the success of its fully online master’s programs—today enrolling 10,000 students—its leaders see distinct value in the co-location of students and instructors. The university notes that 80% of its online computer science master’s students live within two hours of 10 major population centers, and plans to roll out a network of small, customized physical centers in such locations.

Branded Georgia Tech Atrium™, these centers will offer “social glue” for online learners and professors, as well as offer performance, library, and career services- some of the possibilities mentioned. The school is already a leader in terms of innovative online course design and low price. If the institution can also reinvent the “branch campus,” blended learning may finally get the rocket fuel it needs.

Blended start-ups are also visible. Two examples: Modern Campus facilitates immersive travel experiences for small groups of online students, talking up experiential learning, cohort bonding and renewed motivation to finish. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is a partner, a hint that the online giants may see the limits of fully online delivery.

The second example, a thriving K-12 school chain in North Carolina called Thales Academy, has applied for a license to open Thales College and offer a bachelor’s degree. The vision is to leverage open educational resources to push content review online, and reserve in-person time for discussions and problem-solving. Committed to a liberal arts education of the whole person, at a low cost, the blueprint calls for a three-year degree at $32,000 all in. Blended plus quality pedagogy plus low price—a powerful combination.

Prediction 3: The cross-border, international online market finally gets serious.

Verdict:appleappleapple(but still early days)

There are plenty of reasons why online learning remains primarily a domestic market. For international students, sitting at a computer at home pales in comparison with the cultural immersion emblematic of traditional study abroad. Employer skepticism and marketing headaches for schools have kept the dream of borderless online learning just that.

But then MOOCs happened, aligning top schools, engaging content and free access. A growing number of universities now seek to capitalize on this market openness to sell online degrees across borders.

While international online students remain a small minority at U.S. universities, there are signs of momentum at leading institutions. In 2012, at graduate level, R1 institutions reported 12% of non-U.S. online students. By 2017, R1s boasted over 5,000 students, or 29% of this market. This is more than twice their share of domestic online graduate enrollment. The international surge is spearheaded by Georgia Tech’s low-priced online master’s in computer science, but the likes of University of Southern California, Penn State, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and even Harvard are also among the schools with the most international online graduate students.

Arizona State University (ASU) is building on its recognition in Dubai with a partnership with the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education. The foundation is funding 550 students to pursue any of 28 ASU online master’s degrees. The scholarships are open to any citizen of an Arab country with a strong academic record and aged under 30. Persuading the 22 Arab governments, most of which do not recognize online degrees, to change tack is a key objective of the foundation. It sees online degrees as embodying the right mix of rigor and flexibility young Arab professional need to advance their careers and societies. The scholarships also extend to two micromaster’s from MIT.

At the graduate level at least, just as online master’s from top school are transforming the U.S. online market, the same dynamic is beginning to play out internationally as well. It is still early days, but with top ranked schools in the vanguard—the very schools executives and policymakers around the globe may themselves have attended—

The Bottom Line

Somehow or other all three of my predictions have proven true to some extent. I’ve given myself a total score of eight out of twelve possible apples. Activity is still early-stage and marginal, but the underlying pressure for change is real. My take: right predictions, just wrong year :).

Look for 2019 predictions in early January.

Watch this space next week as we continue our Year in Review with the biggest lessons our Analysts learned in 2018! The following week, we'll present our Top 5 Wake-Up Calls of the year!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018 at 1PM EDT/12PM CDT

CHLOE, short for the Changing Landscape of Online Education, is now entering its 3rd year, and interest in the content coming from this research continues to climb. The focus of the research has moved beyond earlier foundational questions about online learning to explore a limited series of issues more fully.

Join the webinar to learn how online leaders are addressing the challenges associated with:

  • Shared governance
  • The development of the chief online officer role
  • Quality assurance processes
  • How to measure student engagement
  • Contrasting institutional models in the online learning landscape
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