Traditional Student Demand

Wholly Online Bachelor’s Degree: Ready for Primetime?

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The residential bachelor’s degree is what many think of when the “college experience” comes to mind. This tried-and-true model of higher education in which a student finishes secondary schooling and leaves the home for a modest campus dormitory to pursue a bachelor’s degree has remained remarkably unchanged. Soon, however, may be the time for such a change. We see several signs indicating that there may be an opening for the right institution to offer a wholly online bachelor's program—one specifically designed for the traditional, college-bound high school market. In our vision, it would be offered at a lower cost and billed as a different yet equally prestigious alternative to the residential program. Make no mistake, this would be a radical step, but let’s examine its feasibility.

Wholly online enrollments across higher education are increasing.

This includes bachelor-level enrollment at four-year public and private institutions. Notably, as online grows, overall enrollment trends downward. And there is much room for growth. In 2016, wholly online undergrad enrollment made up just 11% of the total undergraduate enrollment at these institutions.   Wholly Online Undergraduate Enrollment at 4-Year, Public and Private, Non-Profit Institutions   While growing wholly online enrollment is a current trend at four-year institutions, these programs are almost exclusively aimed at the adult market rather than the college-bound high school market. They are not typically branded and conferred in the same way as a parallel residential bachelor’s program. Could this indicate a market opportunity?

At the graduate level, it’s happening.

The University of Pennsylvania, for example, just announced a new online master’s in computer science that will grant the same degree that is simultaneously offered in a residential program, at about a third of the price. Other examples of this model are the lauded master’s in computer science program at Georgia Tech and the iMBA at University of Illinois, also offered at a lower price points. The master’s degree market may be indicating that there is room to meet students where they are, without cannibalizing or cheapening a residential program. Would the reaction to an online bachelor’s be any different?

Demographic shifts may favor such programs.

Generation Z students and their families place more emphasis than ever before on the ROI of a degree. What’s more, the fastest growing populations graduating high school come from access populations—which Eduventures defines as being first generation, under-represented minority, and/or low income—who are even more likely than their peers to prioritize ROI. Prospective students, be they traditional-aged or adult, are making enrollment decisions based on a range of attitudes, preferences, and expectations. This diversity of enrollment drivers tells us that a student who is the right fit for the wholly online bachelor’s degree, and perhaps attracted most to some combination of a lower price point and greater flexibility, makes decisions differently than a student who is of another mindset. According to our Prospective Student Survey, more than 99% of prospective traditional-aged students applying to a four-year institution still want to take all or at least some in-person courses as undergraduates, these students quite simply have few accredited options outside of a program like Minerva. The Minerva model, while innovative, is highly selective, primarily international, and has yet to move beyond enrolling several hundred students per class. How would students feel about wholly online if it was a truly viable option for them?

Selective publics could better serve their states.

The combination of decreased funding, increased costs, a smaller national pool of incoming students, and ever-more pressure to stick to the mission of serving in-state populations, might just make such an alternative bachelor’s an interesting, timely proposal for many state flagships. Many major publics—Penn State, University of Arizona, and Ohio State, to name a few—already offer online bachelor’s degrees. As previously mentioned, however, these programs tend to be marketed to adult learners, offered as a part of a separate campus (e.g., Penn State World Campus), and in many cases, tuition is not reduced significantly, if at all. Could selective publics better serve their missions by offering a “traditional” bachelor’s online?

The Bottom Line

It would take a thus-far unprecedented leap for a selective four-year institution to launch a lower-priced, online bachelor’s degree that is intentionally targeted to traditional-aged students and marketed and delivered as an equally high quality alternative to an existing residential program. It would be an even further leap to risk watering down the brand name by offering it at a lower price point. Perhaps more importantly, there are numerous concerns related to student success that any wholly online degree would have to address. Of course, between wholly residential and online there are many hybrid and alternative models that can meet the demands of prospective students. Indeed, some already are. It’s entirely possible that the vision of a “wholly online” bachelor’s program may best be realized using some of these elements. We simply make the argument here that higher education may now be ready for one. Perhaps such a program may best serve certain segments of the market, and in turn, further align the right type of institution with its core mission without devaluing existing residential bachelor’s programs.  
Do you think a wholly online degree will help institutions better serve students or serve to devalue their brand name? Tweet us @EduventuresInc using #EVWakeUpCall.
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