Published on 2016/09/29

Alternative Providers Are Fundamentally Transforming the Postsecondary Space

The EvoLLLution | Alternative Providers Are Fundamentally Transforming the Postsecondary Space
In the already-competitive higher education marketplace, the reduction in size of barriers to access for alternative providers means that colleges and universities are going to have to work even harder to attract and retain learners.

With the transformation of student demand and expectations must come a shift in the way higher education is packaged and delivered. While the postsecondary space has remained largely immune to these changes over the past decade, an entire market of alternative providers has grown in parallel to the traditional space and is beginning to challenge colleges and universities for market share. The question comes down to how institutions are going to adapt. In this interview, Burck Smith shares his thoughts on why and how the alternative space has grown so much and discusses how colleges and universities will be impacted by this shift.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are students today looking at alternative and innovative programs for their postsecondary options rather than traditional degree programs?

Burck Smith (BS): Postsecondary education is a market. Students have lots of choices. It used to be just colleges. Now, students can choose from colleges, alternative providers or a combination of the two. Students, like most consumers, are trying to find the best value.

The value of higher education is made up of a number of components. The first is price. Students want to know the total cost of their degree. This includes tuition, fees and materials, but also potential discounts – like scholarships, credit transfer policies and financial aid. The second is the time to completion, which contributes directly to the overall price a student pays. Time to completion is also linked to the opportunity cost for a student to enroll in and complete the program. Third, students want to know the value of the credential that the program awards. Who respects it? What does it mean? Does it help with employment?

New providers are able to respond to these components and provide better value than traditional degree providers. If you look at a verified certificate from a MOOC provider, this is an offering that is both cheaper and quicker than a traditional degree. It may not have the same resonance that a degree has, but it may not need to. As verified certificates from non-traditional providers gain credence among employers, they become more valuable.

Existing institutions are responding to this by finding innovative ways to offer their existing degree programs more quickly and affordably, and that’s where StraighterLine fits in. Since students still want to earn a degree, but the cost of that degree is an increasingly important enrollment consideration, allowing students to transfer credit from StraighterLine lets the student lower the cost and risk of starting the degree. These students then attend the colleges that make it easy to transfer credit. The best way to look at it is to ask, “How are these new providers filling market functions in ways that traditional degree programs aren’t?”

On a related note, traditional programs are often subject to the requirements and demands of federal financial aid, which means they have challenges adapting to some of the new formats that alternative providers have adopted.

Evo: What kind of value do microcredentials and certificates have in the labor market?

BS: The recognition of microcredentials and certificates in the labor market is evolving out of a period of time when the degree was the dominant credential. Today, we’re seeing a slow but steady adoption of microcredentials in the labor market, and especially in the tech space where there has been recognition of certificates for awhile.

With the growth of enrollments across different online providers and with the price of college continuing to rise, we’re seeing more and more employers placing value on those credentials.  For the next decade, we’re going to see the “Degree-Plus” world grow. Students are still going to want to earn degrees, but they’re going to augment that traditional education with all sorts of other credentials. These could be offered by the institution itself, where colleges add badges and microcredentials on top of their degrees or additional credentials through other providers in the market. All of this leads to an environment where students are compiling their assorted levels of mastery and credentials for the labor market.

Evo: As these programs are non-credit, how does this shift toward a Degree-Plus world impact demand for unaccredited, non-institutional education providers?

BS: The shift toward the Degree-Plus model certainly strengthens demand for unaccredited postsecondary education. We certainly see it at StraighterLine; our annual enrollments are growing dramatically year over year. MOOCs are continuing to grow, even though their growth rate has slowed, and there are more and more MOOC providers in that space. There are others like bootcamps, whose growth is pretty well documented.

This growth shows that postsecondary education is a market that’s much bigger than accredited colleges. The unaccredited portion of the post-secondary market is growing much faster than the accredited portion. The internet creates a whole range of new pricing models, payment models, and formats that are cheaper and require less risk on the part of the student.

We’re only going to see continued growth of non-traditional providers.

Evo: Bearing this trend in mind, what role do you expect to see non-institutional education providers playing in the postsecondary market in 10 years’ time?

BS: I think non-institutional education providers are going to play a pretty dramatic role, but the bigger question is, “How will that market be defined?”

What will likely happen over a period of time is what we see as “traditional” will absorb what is currently “non-traditional” and the result will be a combination of both. The EQUIP program is a great example of the first steps towards that, where the DOE is extending financial aid pathways to new providers in conjunction with colleges. It will become increasingly difficult to separate non-traditional from traditional. StraighterLine is participating in the EQUIP program in conjunction with Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Evo: How do expect to see traditional higher education institutions adapt to this shift? Do you expect to see institutions partner with non-institutional providers or are they more likely to compete directly?

BS: What you’re seeing across the board with everything—whether it’s us, MOOCs, bootcamps—institutions are approaching the non-traditional providers with a combination of partnership and competition.

At StraighterLine, we’re offering general education courses that are the same as credit-bearing courses offered by colleges. Colleges award credit and accept credit from lots of different sources. We can be one of those sources, as can MOOCs. Colleges on the one hand fear that MOOCs are going to disrupt higher education, but on the other they are the ones building these free courses themselves.

They see bootcamps as separate entities, but are increasingly recognizing their value, so colleges are building them out themselves or partnering with existing bootcamps to offer their programming on campus. Through the EQUIP program, we are seeing explicit partnerships between colleges, alternative providers and QAEs (quality assurance entities), which will bring new providers under the financial aid umbrella. The new provider must provide more than 50 percent of the program at that college, which moves away from the existing regulation that says they cannot provide more than half. It’s going to take some time for the regulation to change across the board, but that’s the first step to extending financial aid access to new providers. Right now it’s only available through a college partnership and its existing financial aid structures. But after the EQUIP program, it’s easy to see how the model could be adapted more broadly.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the long term impact of this trend towards innovative and alternative credentials?

BS: For the last 15 years, traditional higher education has been mostly insulated from the economics of the Internet. The result of that has been the creation of a parallel, unsubsidized, and vibrant market of non-traditional providers who are able to exist because they are able to offer courses and learning experiences that students prefer in formats that financial aid regulations typically wouldn’t allow.

As traditional institutions start to engage more directly with (or against) non-traditional providers, you’re starting to see the impact of digital economics creep into the traditional sector. There will be increasing price competition, particularly for online courses. It will be increasingly difficult for colleges to maintain their price points for online offerings and you’ll see shorter format offerings appear on the market. These are a few things that are likely to come.

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Key Takeaways

  • Growing demand for inexpensive postsecondary options with minimal opportunity cost led to the rise in alternative providers and microcredentials.
  • Institutions have historically engaged in co-opetition with alternative providers, and this is unlikely to change even as these providers grow both in value for students and labor market recognition.
  • The EQUIP program is a first step towards create more accessible financial aid options for students exploring alternative offerings, which will signal a move towards a more even competitive landscape.