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Looking Back at My 2019 Higher Education Predictions: Right, Half-Right, Delayed

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Every year I make three predictions for higher education in the year ahead (look out for my 2020 predictions in early January). In this Wake-Up Call, we review whether my 2019 higher education predictions proved accurate or missed the mark.

Back in January, I predicted under three headings (click to jump to section):

  • Access: At least five more R1 universities will launch a low price 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.

Let’s start at the top.

Access: At least five more R1 universities will launch a low-price online master’s degree.


The first of my higher education predictions was spot on. To illustrate, let’s define a “low-price” master’s program at an elite university as “up to $25,000” and start with offerings from the two leading MOOC platforms. EdX has gone from seven to 11 low-price online master’s programs in 2019, encompassing three new R1 partners:

  • Arizona State University (Master’s in Supply Chain Management, $19,080)
  • Boston University (MBA, $24,000)
  • Purdue University (Master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering, $22,500)

Coursera has also expanded its master’s portfolio from six to 15 programs. New R1s working with Coursera in 2019 are:

  • University of Colorado Boulder (Master of Science in Electrical Engineering, $20,000; and a Master of Science in Data Science, price TBD)
  • University of Pennsylvania (Master’s of Computer and Information Technology, $25,000)

University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and University of Michigan, already offering master’s programs through Coursera, each added master’s programs on the platform in 2019.

MicroMasters® from edX and specializations from Coursera, many of which articulate to a master’s degree, are another route to a low-price degree. New specializations launched in 2019 include Foundations of Global Health from Johns Hopkins University.

Beyond the MOOC providers, low-cost master’s programs at R1s are harder to track, but other examples include University of Arkansas and University of Alabama, both of which have grown their portfolios this year. These R1s offer a growing array of online master’s degrees for under $15,000, and do not charge a higher prices to out-of-state students.

In summary, the list of R1s with low-price online master’s programs has grown longer but also more diverse: Boston University and University of Pennsylvania are the first private universities to jump on the trend, and engineering and supply chain programs have joined the fray.

The open question is how well these low-price master’s programs are doing in enrollment terms—aside from Georgia Tech’s pioneering and massive computer science master’s with over 9,000 students, and University of Illinois’ iMBA which is already well past 1,000 enrollments. It is notable that Coursera and edX remain silent on the matter; individual schools tend not to disclose such data, and many programs are too new to show up in federal reporting. Does this just mean early days or that enrollment is not going as planned?

The ultimate value for R1s of low-price online master’s is still to be determined. Dramatic market expansion gets pundits excited—and makes less prestigious schools nervous—but requires these often conservative institutions to grapple with the operational and reputational implications of getting to scale. In another 12 months, I predict we will have more data to judge the performance and significance of these programs.

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


If my first of my higher education predictions was low-stakes—extrapolating from an obvious trend—my second goes against the grain of individual faculty and school-centric course development.

Online course sharing is now commonplace. State and regional consortia have been in place for two decades, pooling thousands of online courses among member institutions. A 2018 WCET survey of over 30 consortia reported that the majority facilitate course sharing, and about 40% do the same for degree or certificate programs. But all this tends to mean no more than a portal to online courses and programs offered by member schools.

This sort of sharing can be beneficial, helping students tackle prerequisites or graduate faster, affording more choice, or increasing the viability of more obscure subjects, but it does not involve cross-institutional course or program development in the first place. Faculty autonomy, the pains of collaboration, and shifting personalities mean it’s easier to keep doing things the same old way, often pushing up costs and diluting quality.

To my knowledge, the closest we came in 2019 to a new consortium that fulfilled my prediction is an off-shoot of the Lower Cost Models for Independent Colleges Consortium (LCMC), a group of private colleges committed to joint program development that I had previously mentioned. LCMC has already launched one jointly developed program—a seven-course Certified Financial Planning program to prepare students for a national examination—and is working on a second in Applied Computer Science.

The LCMC off-shoot, called RIZE, is led by Adrian College in Michigan, and is the operational arm of LCMC. RIZE does not yet have a website but a representative filled me in. The core idea is to build new in-demand majors, minors or graduate programs that the typical LCMC college could not undertake solo. And to build these courses, RIZE has turned to the “best of the best”, faculty at top tier universities such as Michigan and Rutgers, as well as sought input from about 20 Fortune 500 firms. This approach means quality is top notch, courses are informed by real-world needs, and by focusing on cutting-edge content the not-invented-here syndrome is sidestepped. LCMC college faculty chose which courses to adopt and are free to make modifications. Each new program is team-taught online across participating colleges.

Adrian College’s president, Jeffrey Docking, is convinced that his college and others like it, to remain viable, will have to lower tuition 30-40% in the next decade. RIZE is conceived as a way to add programming and grow enrollment without a typical increase in cost. New revenue will give institutions more room to maneuver when it comes to maintaining faculty numbers and lowering price.

The first RIZE majors and minors, in professional sales, supply chain, computer science and web development, launch in January.

There were other signs of joint course and program development in 2019. Back in March, my head was turned by a story relaying how some Christian colleges were planning joint online degrees, but I have been unable to obtain any further details.

An unexpected consequence of making higher education predictions is to subsequently discover that you did not have all the facts. I have become better acquainted with two consortia that have been quietly getting on with the business of joint online programs for years:

  • The Great Plains IDEA consortium is a great example. Founded in 1994, IDEA now offers eighteen joint programs, mostly master’s degrees and graduate certificates. Students register at and obtain their degrees from one member school, but programs are made up of courses from different members, some of which were jointly developed. All students pay the same tuition. Members (all public universities) are concentrated in the Midwest, but range as far as North Carolina State University in the east and California State University – Chico in the west.
  • University of Wisconsin (UW) MBA Consortium provides a joint online MBA, AACSB accredited, from three UW institutions (Eau Claire, La Crosse, and Oshkosh). Core courses are team-taught by cross-institutional faculty and built by a collective of instructional designers. Yes, cross-university MBAs are not new, but UW claims to be the first and only to award the degree from the consortium rather than one of the partner institutions, underscoring that it truly is a collaborative effort.

Another longstanding push for collaboration is Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Open Learning Initiative, which offers over 60 online courses, honed by decades of learning science research, to other institutions and solo learners at a very low cost. This year, CMU announced OpenSimon, a commitment to package and open license an array of tools to encourage more effective and efficient course development and delivery.

Last year, I highlighted how University System of Georgia’s (USG) eCore and eMajor, systemwide general education and majors developed collaboratively and serviced centrally, have gone from strength-to-strength. Student headcount has quadrupled to 25,000 compared to five years ago, and course completion is close to 90%. USG maintains that the arrangement is now self-funded from tuition and has improved quality and lowered cost. Indeed, eCore tuition has dropped in recent years, down to $159 per credit, including textbooks and materials.

My conclusion on higher education prediction 2 is that in 2019 we saw traction for existing course and program co-development efforts—hard won over many years—and rumblings of wider interest. Turf, accreditation norms, and complexity stand in the way of wider adoption, as well as understandable concern that greater efficiency will mean fewer faculty.

The WCET report noted that course sharing is in decline now that so many colleges have robust online portfolios, but also pointed to nascent plans by some consortia for joint program collaboration to minimize duplication of effort and expense. The logic of collaboration is as powerful as ever, and the likes of Great Plains IDEA, eCore, LCMC, and RIZE are leading the way. Understanding the full operational implications of program co-development efforts, including employment impact as well as efficiency gains, is an important frontier for research.

Outcomes: The groundbreaking CLIMB initiative will change the higher education conversation.


It initially looked like CLIMB’s ascent had stalled.

Collegiate Leaders in Increasing Mobility (CLIMB) is part of Opportunity Insights, a research effort led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, using “big data” to better understand economic mobility and translate insights into policy. In 2015, the initiative turned to higher education, publishing Mobility Report Cards for colleges and universities, showing that few of the most prestigious schools moved significant numbers of students from the bottom to the top of the economic ladder.

The report cards generated a lot of interest, leading to CLIMB, a confab of universities and other higher education bodies (including our parent organization, ACT) committed to unpacking why certain schools outperform others when it comes to mobility. There was a CLIMB conference in 2017.

But then the trail seemed to go cold. Opportunity Insights shifted into other policy areas, and the CLIMB pages looked just as they did a year ago. Perhaps bringing together lots of institutions and organizations, representing the glorious complexity of higher education, gave the CLIMB researchers a big headache. The “big data” that the project thrives on may simply be too threadbare in our industry.

But I’m pleased to say that CLIMB is still climbing. The Opportunity Insights team told me that CLIMB now encompasses over 400 institutional and other partners, and that new research is coming in the first half of 2020.

In early January, I will be back with my 2020 Higher Education Predictions…

Thursday, December 5, 2019, 2PM ET/1PM CT

In this webinar, Eduventures Chief Research Officer Richard Garrett explores rarely analyzed program and enrollment trend data, drawing on two decades of program feasibility work for hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide. This throws new light on three fundamental questions:

  • Over the past decade, is enrollment by field of study best characterized by change or continuity?
  • To what extent have the most successful schools – in terms of enrollment – relied on launching new programs?
  • What is the optimal program portfolio size by enrollment scale?

The goal of this webinar is to better inform higher education leaders about the power and pitfalls of new programs. Leaders spanning traditional age and adult, campus and online, and undergraduate and graduate programs will benefit from this session.

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