In their book, That Used to Be Us, authors Thomas Friedman and Michael
Mandelbaum posit that the future of the United States rests firmly on the
shoulders of our education system. However, the authors report that only
25 percent of high school graduates who enroll in an undergraduate degree
program are prepared for college work and approximately 40 percent are
required to take remedial courses. Only 60 percent will graduate in six
years. And companies spend more than $3 billion annually on remedial
training. The book cites many additional negative statistics, all indications
that unless things change the United States will continue to fall further and
further behind other countries.
Higher education in the United States is a big industry, more than $500
billion in annual expenditures and many aspects of this industry are in
trouble. Currently about 18 million students are enrolled in higher education
courses, 2.4 million fewer students than were enrolled five years ago.
Enrollment is not expected to increase until 2023. In January, 2018
Moody’s Investor Service downgraded higher education from “stable” to
Many colleges and universities, especially those with little brand name
recognition and low endowments continue chasing after a shrinking pool of
qualified students. One-third of small private schools rated by Moody’s
Investor Service generated operating deficits in 2016, an increase from 20
percent three years ago.
According to Friedman, “big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly
possible meets what is desperately necessary.” Could that apply to online
learning and Massive Open Online courses as potential new sources of
recruitment and enrollment?
Generation Z is the first “phigital” generation, defined as students who do
not make a distinction between the physical world and the digital world.
How can enrollment managers, deans of admission and international
enrollment managers reach this generation of students?
Enter online and Massive Open Online courses. According to a report,
eMarketer 2016, young adults are online an average of 53 hours a week.
380 million mobile devises were purchased in the first quarter of 2017, a
9.1 percent increase over the first quarter of 2016. In the 2015-16
academic year more than 6 million American students were enrolled in a
least one online and distance education course.
Similar statistics apply to international higher education.
China ranks first in the number of Massive Open Online courses with 3,200
launched by 460 higher education institutions. 55 million Chinese have
enrolled in Massive Open Online courses including more than 6 million
university students. In 2016 the number of online Chinese online learners
increased by 23.8 percent and it is anticipated that when the statistics are
published there would be a 20.5 percent increase in 2017. That increase
would bring then number of total online learners to 100 million.
Recently the government of India approved a plan permitting 15 percent of
Indian universities to offer online degrees allowing the universities to tap
into a new market of students and adult learners who are unable to attend
In February, 2017, an agreement was signed between the 380-member
Association of African Universities and Africa’s largest online education
platform, eLearn Africa. This arrangement will allow approximately 10
million African students to access higher education through online courses
offered to member institutions.
According to a report, Digital Learning Compass: Distance Education
Report 2017, 30 percent of students worldwide are enrolled in at least one
Several years ago I wrote A Practical Guide to Enrollment and Retention
Management in Higher Education. I began the first chapter of the book with
a quote of Francis Wayland, president of Brown University, who wrote in
“Our colleges are not filled because we do not furnish the education
desired by the people. We have produced an article for which demand is
diminishing. We sell it at less than cost, and the deficiency is made up by
charity. We give it away, and the demand still diminishes.” This was written
in 1850. Could it also apply to higher education in 2018?
The jury is still out on the efficacy and impact of online learning, hybrid
learning, and massive open online courses. Many higher education
administrators and faculty argue that online learning is disruptive. Others
claim that precisely because it is disruptive online learning offers the best
hope for the future higher education enrollment. Online learning will never
replace traditional colleges and universities. But they do offer the potential
to enroll new cohorts of students for whom the traditional on-campus model
is irrelevant. And they do offer enrollment managers and admission deans
an expanded universe of students from which to recruit and enroll.
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