Adult Learner Demand

Higher Education Predictions for 2019: Low-Priced Master’s, Course Licensing, and CLIMB

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Let’s start with two things I don’t think will happen next year: an enrollment-spurring recession (enrollment-spurring for the adult market particularly—my bet is 2020), and passage of the reauthorized Higher Education Act (unlikely with a divided Congress).

Here are that I do think will happen next year—focused on access, cost, and outcomes:

  • Access. At least five more R1 universities will launch a low-priced online master’s degree.
  • Cost. A group of colleges or universities will announce an innovative course co-development and licensing model.
  • Outcomes. The groundbreaking CLIMB initiative will change the higher education conversation.

Prediction 1: ACCESS. At least five more R1 universities will launch a low-priced online master’s degree.

In a strange twist of fate, the nation’s flagship universities are the new trailblazers of online learning. Queasy at the prospect of accommodating the delivery mode, leading schools have made online work for them.

But there are two paths. Most common is for an R1 school to take an existing master’s programs and offer it online at the same (expensive) price. This is a smart move, if the growth rates of 2U, the online program management (OPM) firm of choice for R1s, are anything to go by. Yet it is the second path—R1s that leverage online to offer a cut-price degree—that I regard as more interesting.

Georgia Tech is the leader here, launching its prototype $7,000 online master’s in computer science back in 2012, and going on to enroll over 8,000 students to date. Indiana University, University of California, San Diego, and University of Texas, Austin have followed suit on the edX platform, along with two more offerings from Georgia Tech. Coursera is flying the flag with University of Illinois, University of Michigan, and Arizona State. Prices vary, and some are yet to be announced, but the trend is clear: top brand, low price.

But there are 115 R1 institutions (actually there are now a few more following a recent revision to the Carnegie Classification). I predict that at least another five beyond those named above will take the plunge. Low-priced programs beyond data science, cybersecurity, and MBAs—perhaps accounting or healthcare management—will feature in this new class.

For less prestigious institutions, low price may be mistaken for low quality, or desperation. For R1s, this new breed of online master’s reimagines the brand. Same admission standards, same rigor, same faculty, but mass enrollment at a low price. I also predict that at least one of the five will be private—all pioneers have been public so far.

Prediction 2: COST. A group of colleges or universities will announce an innovative course co-development and licensing model.

It is not hard to find evidence that higher education is getting ever more expensive. Just in the last few weeks:

  • Outpacing inflation. The Higher Education Price Index, calculated by The Commonfund Institute (2018 report now available), has outpaced the Consumer Price Index since 1983, making higher education 33% more expensive today than the CPI benchmark. Widespread state disinvestment is of course a major factor.
  • Unmet need has grown. The Center for Law and Social Policy released a report showing that average undergraduate student “unmet need” (the difference between price paid and grants) grew 23% between 2012 and 2016 alone.
  • Weighed down by debt. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos put out a statement noting that the federal government holds $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loans, a threefold increase from 2007 and a $500 billion increase from 2013. Forty-three percent of student loans are considered “in distress” by the federal government, and student debt now accounts for 10% of the national debt.

The standard “solution” to these trends is to manage price rather than cost; to increase grants, improve loan terms, and write-off debt. While DeVos is contemplating two such measures—a return to federal subsidy of private lenders and steering more students into non-degree programming—maybe this is the year cost reduction will come into play.

The norm in higher education is for faculty to develop their own courses. While academic freedom and hard-won expertise rationalize this approach, the result is a mighty duplication of effort. The same textbook might span multiple institutions, and guaranteed credit transfer agreements are increasingly common, but one school adopting a course from another is vanishingly rare. Portals that allow students to enroll in courses at other schools are fine, but each school still creates every course in the first place. Even price-lowering innovations like open educational resources (OER), a boon for students, start with the assumption that each institution and faculty member builds their own courses.

Surely all this pushes up costs. Salary and benefits accounts for about 70% of “instructional” spend.

Is there a better way? Starting with high enrollment, lower division courses in state systems, the flagship institution, or a statewide representative panel of faculty could design and build—with the support of instructional designers and the like—top-notch courses and license them across the system. If public institutions are the focus, the state could provide central funding and incentivize institutions to sign up. Cost savings might then be split between institutions and students.

For the courses in question, faculty can concentrate on being great teachers. Credit transfer should be eased, too, since Flagship U will know all about those core courses the student wants to transfer.

Two examples are University System of Georgia’s eCore, a collection of general education courses developed and delivered by cross-institutional faculty; and the early-stage Lower Cost Models for Independent Colleges consortium, a group of private colleges on the course co-development path.

The rise of common general education curricula, transfer guarantees, online course templates, and OER have laid the groundwork. I predict that in 2019 a state system or other grouping will reach the point where more hand wringing on cost won’t cut it. Instead state policymakers and institutional leaders will come up with a new course creation and licensing model.

Prediction 3: OUTCOMES. The groundbreaking CLIMB initiative will change the higher education conversation.

My final prediction is less specific but perhaps most important. Collegiate Leaders in Increasing Mobility (CLIMB) launched in 2017 as an alliance between researchers and universities to address some fundamental questions:

  • Is higher education still an engine of social mobility?
  • Which colleges and universities do the best job on social mobility?
  • If so, what explains this outperformance?

These questions lie at the heart of contemporary student, parent, government, and employer anxiety about higher education. CLIMB cuts through the noise on college costs, student experience and graduate employment. Conventional metrics and rankings too often do no more than recognize the richest and most selective institutions or judge outcomes with little understanding of inputs such as student backgrounds. The student experience, which transforms inputs into outputs, is least understood of all.

By aggregating disparate federal and institutional data, and controlling for student and institutional inputs, CLIMB has a shot at a breakthrough model. Timing is good. The new higher education white paper from the U.S. Department for Education wants institutions to be judged on quality not selectivity, and puts its weight behind the kind of “value-added” model that CLIMB embodies.

My prediction is that in 2019 CLIMB will publish groundbreaking insights into how specific schools break the mold by both admitting and graduating above-average numbers of low-income students who go on to become high earners.

There are potential roadblocks. The institutions highlighted so far by CLIMB as mobility engines—and CLIMB institutional partners—are almost all public. Private colleges and universities are also part of the mobility narrative, and need to be more visible in the project beyond elite privates being called on to admit more low-income undergraduates. Perhaps CLIMB could break out mobility rankings by private/public status and by Carnegie Classification. To succeed, CLIMB cannot be seen to favor one type of school.

Another potential obstacle is that institutional data, crucial intelligence on why a school outperforms on mobility, may prove too fragmented and incomplete to reveal very much. It will be disappointing if the only tangible factor is location in a low-income portion of a top-tier city. It is notable that seven of the top 10 “most mobile” schools cited by CLIMB researchers are in either New York City or Los Angeles.

CLIMB so far has focused on mobility from the bottom to the top income quintile. Examination of other upward trajectories, such as from the fourth to the second quintile, would be just as illuminating; and help soften any perception that the best way to judge higher education is graduate income. A decent, but not exceptional wage, plus job satisfaction in a high-value profession is no less laudable an outcome.

CLIMB is a bold, ambitious initiative poised to bring much-needed clarity to the higher education debate. The road is long, but expect new insights in 2019.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: ACT | NRCCUA is a CLIMB data-sharing partner.]


What are your predictions for higher ed in 2019? Tweet your thoughts @EduventuresInc using #EVWakeUpCall.

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