US public universities eye big move into online education

After the collapse of for-profit colleges, big state universities see need and opportunity

April 12, 2019

The whittling-down of the for-profit sector in US higher education is creating a lure – increasingly felt by bigger public institutions – to fill the void of online offerings catering to older career-oriented students.

So far just a handful of non-profit institutions, both public and private, have made major leaps into online. But large public universities are now taking harder looks, experts said, and appear best positioned to make big gains.

“They have some advantages of brand and price that we think will play pretty well in the market” for job-specific training, said Dennis Gephardt, an analyst specialising in higher education at Moody’s Investors Service.

Mr Gephardt and his team at Moody’s just finished an analysis aimed at assessing future growth in online university education following the rapid decline in the scandal-plagued for-profit sector.

It finds that online enrolment across the US continues to grow faster than on-campus enrolment. It also shows that private non-profit institutions are growing their online operations especially fast.

But, in raw numbers, public universities hold the largest share of online enrolment and the best chances to grow, Moody’s found. So even as public universities take a relatively cautious approach to new initiatives, their dominance in online is likely to continue.

One of the most recent to take the jump is the University of Massachusetts, which began this year a plan to expand from its current level of about 10,000 fully online students to 25,000 within five years and 40,000 within 10 years.

The president of the Massachusetts system, Marty Meehan, said in an annual state of the university speech last month that he felt compelled to act, given the number of out-of-state institutions – many of them public – that already were finding online customers within Massachusetts.

The nation’s six biggest online providers are all private, half of them for-profit, led by the University of Phoenix, with about 135,000 students. Among publics, the biggest is run by the University of Maryland, with about 44,000 students.

Perhaps most instructive for UMass officials is the growth of Southern New Hampshire University, just half an hour north of the Massachusetts border.

SNHU is a small regional private institution with only 3,000 students on campus. But it added the most online students of any US institution over the past five years, according to Moody’s data, to claim a total enrolment of about 90,000.

Among those enrolled online at SNHU, lamented Mr Meehan, a former Democratic congressman, were an estimated 15,000 Massachusetts residents. That loss looks even worse when considering how fast the region is losing its younger population. The six New England states have both the nation’s lowest fertility rate and its highest concentration of colleges, and are expected within seven years to produce as many as 54,000 fewer college-aged students, Mr Meehan said.

“The time for us to act is now,” he said in the speech, encouraged by data collected by UMass showing that most of the Massachusetts residents enrolled in SNHU’s online programmes would prefer UMass if it had similar offerings.

Experts at Moody’s, which assesses the current and future financial health of institutions, see public universities making similar calculations across the country.

Overall, Mr Gephardt said, the broad calculation being made by UMass – seeking to cover the loss of traditional-age college students with older workers who badly need retraining – made sense. “There are a lot of busy adults with some college and not a college degree, and that’s a growth opportunity for the sector,” he said.

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