The Online Migration: Three Master’s Programs to Watch

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Online program strategy has taken on new meaning and direction in the midst of COVID-19. Institutions must balance previously established plans—or lack thereof—to launch online master's programs with new priorities to provide safe distance learning alternatives.

Understanding the online landscape pre-COVID-19 can provide clues that may prove useful in deciding which programs to prioritize taking online next. Here are three examples of master’s level programs with promising mixes of pre-pandemic growth, room for online expansion, and signs of increased student demand.

Pre-COVID-19 Online Landscape

First, some context. Prior to the pandemic, online education at public and private four-year institutions was growing slowly but steadily, and poised to grow further. Figure 1 demonstrates that most schools had plans to expand their fully online program portfolios at both the master’s and bachelor’s levels: 77% percent of schools with online master’s programs and 62% with online bachelor’s programs intended to increase the number of new programs.


Four-Year Institution Plans for Fully Online Program Portfolio Over the Next Three Years Figure 1.


IPEDS data also supports the trend of growing online migration. Data from 2018, the most recent available, indicates that 19% of master’s programs were offered in a “distance format,” a good proxy for online. 

Between 2014 and 2018, four-year institutions in the U.S. added online programs at a rate of about .5% per year at the bachelor’s level and 1.3% per year at the master’s level. That’s about 500 new online bachelor’s programs and 650 new master’s programs each year.

Fast-forward to today: the vast majority of master’s programs While the impact of COVID-19 on master’s demand is still in flux, here are three master’s programs that show signs of long-term online growth potential: instructional design, engineering, and accounting.

Instructional Technology: Poised to Experience Pandemic Acceleration

Universities, corporations, K-12 schools, non-profits, and government entities alike increasingly see online as mainstream, a trend the pandemic has pushed into overdrive. Numerous organizations will be in the market for professionals with the skills to develop and administer online learning experiences that extend far beyond the use of video conferencing tools.

Figure 2 charts the rise in the percentage of instructional technology master’s programs offered online, and their conferral growth between 2014 and 2018.


Master’s in Instructional TechnologyFigure 2.


At the master’s level, instructional technology conferrals grew by nearly 40% in the last five years, with a five-year CAGR of 7%—a bright spot among education programs that have collectively declined by 17.5% over the same time period. By 2018, the majority, 67%, of instructional technology programs were already offered in an online format, which indicates a high level of student receptiveness toward this modality.

There is also a wide variety of providers in this space. The largest programs are offered by a range of institutions: from prestigious, high-tuition schools like Johns Hopkins University, to national online powerhouses with more modest tuitions like Western Governors University. Louisiana State University (LSU), with its growing online presence, added an education technology master’s last fall.

Engineering: Online has Plateaued but Future Looks Bright

Engineering graduate education has a long history of distance learning, pre-online. But today, engineering master’s programs, as a whole, fall just below the national average in terms of the proportion offered online, with 18% of all master’s level engineering programs offered online pre-pandemic (vs. 19% for all programs).

Figure 3 indicates that the percentage of online engineering programs in three major subfields leveled off in 2017 and 2018.


Master’s in Engineering – Program TrendsFigure 3.


The plateau may suggest reticence from students and institutions about online fit, or highlight that even at the master’s level some programs require access to specialized equipment on campus.

But there are also signals that some schools see opportunity. Over the past year, there have been three significant new market entrants, each in a different discipline. In April, Purdue Global, in partnership with edX, launched an online master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Penn State and LSU launched online master’s degrees in industrial and civil engineering, respectively, in the latter half of 2019.

Building on a more traditional undergraduate engineering degree, online master’s often focus on management development and most students are practicing engineers able to use their workplace for real-world application. The determination to balance work and online study can impress hiring managers, and it is hard to argue with the reputation of the major universities invested in online learning. Many large engineering employers, at least pre-pandemic, funded star employees to take a master’s degree online, liking the balance of rigor and convenience.

ABET, the engineering degree program accreditor, accredits 100% online degrees but plays only a modest role at the master’s level regardless of modality. This has given leading schools ABET accredited at bachelor’s for their campus programs, freedom to evolve online at the master’s level.

Major engineering occupations are expected to grow in the coming decade but not dramatically. Online master’s momentum will be driven by relatively low master’s attainment in a profession challenged to keep up with technological change.

Accounting: Rapid Online Growth but Clouds on the Horizon

Online accounting master’s programs are still relatively unusual compared to their more popular business brethren, the MBA. Figure 4 shows that 57% percent of MBA programs were online pre-COVID-19 compared to just 23% of master’s in accounting programs. Accounting programs have also grown their enrollments in recent years, whereas MBAs have declined.


Master’s in Accounting and MBAFigure 4.


In the accounting profession, master’s preparation is still atypical. To take the CPA exam, the route to professional entry, most states require 150 credit hours, which tends to mean a bachelor’s degree plus specialized courses. Master’s programs offer an alternative route, and the convenience of online learning sweetens the offer. A master’s is also a way to satisfy professional development requirements for CPAs but competes with industry courses and certifications.

Accounting is a large profession, over a million strong, but of course not all accountants are CPAs. Many non-CPAs do not have a degree at all, learning on the job and pursuing specialized courses.

Master’s accounting conferrals have grown dramatically over a longer period than shown in Figure 4. Between 2010 and 2018, conferrals jumped 44%, compared to an 18% rise for master’s degrees generally. Growth has plateaued recently, which may suggest the market is saturated. Between 2012 and 2018, total accounting master’s grew 28% but online programs grew over 150% and showed no sign of slowing down. 

The online surge may suggest a crowded market in need of innovation: the convenience of online helps convince busy professionals to enroll, and schools see the delivery mode as a way to expand geographically.

It is reasonable to imagine the master’s degree becoming more of a mainstay in the accounting profession, as individuals and firms look for ways to stand out. But if the underlying accounting master’s value proposition has peaked, online learning alone will not be a panacea. Schools need to make sure that they call out the benefits of master’s preparation.

The Bottom Line

Understanding pre-pandemic trends prior to taking a program online is essential. But deciding which programs to take online in the midst of pandemic uncertainty and an economic downturn depends on other factors too.

Perhaps the most important consideration is the student experience. Pedagogical approaches, technology enhancements, faculty expertise, and opportunities for students to connect with peers, faculty, and employers are all important differentiators for online programs. The changing job market and regional program competition are also important factors to consider in program development, especially at the graduate level.

One thing is certain: today’s climate will only advance the prospects of the online master’s degree.

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Eduventures Senior Analyst at ACT | NRCCUA

Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 1PM ET/12PM CT

For higher education leaders, planning for fall is never straightforward, but nothing is certain about fall 2020. The severity of the pandemic, whether campuses can re-open and under what restrictions, student appetite for remote alternatives, and the state of institutional finances are dynamic unknowns forcing schools to plan for the most pivotal moment in the academic year largely in the dark. But schools need to make decisions, and they need to make them now. Higher education leaders want to understand student sentiment but students look to schools for clarity on what fall will look like.

Certainty may be in short supply, but sharing ideas and perspectives can only help. Join us for a conversation with Neumann University President Chris Domes, Simmons University President Helen Drinan, Charter Oak State College President Ed Klonoski, and Eduventures Chief Research Officer Richard Garrett. These institutions have worked hard to stand up remote instruction over the past two months (Charter Oak is an online institution) and are now piecing together fall plans that must be realistic, sustainable and appealing to students, faculty and staff.

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