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Trends in Online Higher Education Over the Next Five Years

Online educations popularity boomed out of necessity, but its future will be built on innovation.
Online educations popularity boomed out of necessity, but its future will be built on innovation.

If your career in higher education administration spans a decade or two, you have had enough time to observe new products and ideas that were supposed to change everything but didn’t really produce the comprehensive revolutions predicted. A few examples of the failed fad phenomenon I’ve observed include Second Life, MOOC mania, Badging and Blockchain. It is therefore with some caution that I accept The EvoLLLution’s invitation to offer my opinions on the higher education trends we might observe over the next five years.

As the chief online learning officer at the University of Cincinnati, I must anticipate the headwinds that challenge our progress as we continue to pursue a mission of learning and teaching in an online environment. Student success drives our decisions and actions. We are not successful if our online students do not achieve their learning outcomes now and their career aspirations later.

University leaders depend on me to lead an online education effort that will be sustainable, predictable and that produces high-quality educational experiences and positive learning outcomes within a framework that supports academic excellence and efforts to expand access to educational opportunities. As I look to the next five years, here are the recurring themes of my conversations.

1. Online Education Will Continue to Expand

Over recent years ideas about online teaching and learning have shifted dramatically. Institutions and faculty members who previously thought online education would never happen at their schools or with their courses learned that online education produced positive learning outcomes, especially as face-to-face instruction was limited during the pandemic. There are more universities, colleges, departments, and faculty offering online learning options than ever before—and most have had at least two years of experience to experiment and refine their content and methods. The genie is out of the bottle and students’ expectations for online content, convenience, accessibility and flexibility will increase in the years ahead.

If they aren’t already doing so, institutions that offer fully online degrees will find ways to make their course content available to on-campus students. This additional option allows those students to create hybrid schedule options (mixing online and on-campus courses) and further blur the lines within institutions that previously had segregated online and “regular” course and degree offerings. However, the impact of this additional enrollment typically won’t be counted as online revenue, and decisions about funding online expansion will continue to favor degrees with demonstrated marketplace demand and not just individual course enrollment. Degrees still dominate the credential landscape. Organizations and the people they employ still look to degrees (of all levels) as the most significant credentials. And for most, degrees are understood to produce more earning power than other alternative credential types.

Not every institution that offers online programs will experience blockbuster enrollment. The newly emerging online offerings from institutions just now jumping into ouir competitive online environment will not attract the same attention that large online enrollers like SNHU and WGU do. However, incremental enrollment will make a difference for the enrollment profiles of most of those institutions and will encourage the continued expansion of online offerings. The challenge will be for universities and colleges to determine an overall online strategy and plot a course to sustain or grow affordably within an ever-increasingly competitive and expensive marketplace environment.

2. Online Education Financial Models Will Evolve

Online program management (OPM) has grown to a $6B industry in part because it allowed universities to just focus on delivering online instruction. OPMs typically cover marketing, recruiting, and student retention support. These costs can begin six months or more before the first students join the programs and start paying tuition. Businesses and investors can be very good at calculating investment, the time value of money, and return on investment. The long-term OPM contracts that critics complain about are the result of exactly those investments and ROI calculations. Many higher education institutions are not good at that kind of financial modeling and investment planning. Typically, the universities’ books must balance every year, regardless of the investments made and their time horizons for producing returns. In some state university systems, all funds are swept back to the central system each year, and this kind of investment is incredibly difficult to model and create.

To successfully expand and grow online revenues, universities and colleges will need to develop more sophisticated financial models and flexibility. Even as institutions compete for student enrollment in the public marketplace, they will need to compete internally with the temptation to take the easy money that OPMs offer in the short term. It can be difficult for university CFOs to wait three or four years—like OPMs do—to realize some of the large returns available through long-term online investment.

To achieve this change, universities and colleges will have to develop tools and systems to gain insights into individual online programs that will need to be funded, tracked, and evaluated on their own merit as investment opportunities. But the entire online operation will need to be funded, tracked, and evaluated as a portfolio opportunity. The online opportunities associated with each individual degree need to be balanced against overall portfolio opportunity and performance. Universities and colleges will need to think in a more intentional, strategic, and focused way rather than just build a set of online offerings based on the interests of faculty who volunteer to participate. Online initiatives will be more successful when they are integrated and funded as part of the university’s core operations in much the same way that enrollment management, admissions, financial aid, registrar, and other shared services have been funded.

3. Online Course and Instructional Quality Must Improve

As the number of online offerings exploded during the pandemic, so did the awareness of and impatience for low-quality online learning experiences. Online courses do not need to look like they have been created by a Hollywood studio on a professional soundstage with the highest production value. In fact, sometimes a little homegrown vibe in a self-made video clip or audio recording can provide some authenticity and connection to a professor’s personality and humanity. What has been completely and robustly complained about are the online courses with no faculty presence, no defined peer-to-peer activities, no feedback, and little more than a syllabus and the PDFs for each chapter provided by the textbook publishers.

Students are not going to pay regular tuition for online courses that amount to digital correspondence courses. The student retention teams will be the first to learn about the dissatisfaction for these courses, and it will be a difficult task for them to deliver this information to the faculty, program directors, departments, and colleges in ways that will be heard and produce changes.

Guidelines and standards available from Quality Matters and the Online Learning Consortium and their respective course evaluation tools will be helpful, but most faculties will want to establish their own committees and standards for “minimal requirements” for online courses and instruction. If there’s a lot of energy around this topic, faculty senate endorsement of the standards may be available to encourage and support a higher-performing culture for online instruction. Some institutions provide their faculty with training in online pedagogy before teaching an online course. Others may make instructional designers available to support faculty in their online course development. Few institutions require their faculty to do one or both in their pursuit of online academic excellence.

4. Data and Research Will Shape Online Strategy

For many years, higher ed institutions offered only online programs that were launched based on faculty interest or willingness to participate in a pilot program. The costs of developing, marketing, recruiting, launching, and sustaining online programs are too great to make these investments based on intuition, instinct, or hunches. There are numerous consulting firms that collect large fees doing marketplace analysis, surveys and scans for potential enrollment. Leaders of online initiatives will increase their opportunities for success if they can develop an environment where marketplace research and data are trustworthy and trusted. This may be possible using a consultant, but internally sourced analysis may also be necessary to win over those who seem to prefer anecdotal and personal experience over research.

Market research should also be used with existing online students to discover their preferences, opinions, experiences, appetite and potential for further participation in online education. OPMs have been doing it for years and have carefully selected their university partners based on that research. Universities that wish to compete need to have this intelligence available and then act based upon what the evidence shows. Universities who adapt and serve the student audience where it is will be more successful than those who expect the student audience to find them.

Online education is data-intensive. Because all interactions within this modality are mediated by digital technologies, they can be tracked, measured, analyzed, and evaluated. The data profile begins with the first marketing activity that produces an inquiry from a prospect and continues as that prospect becomes an applicant, student, and ultimately a graduate of the online program. The value of analyzing the relationships between these myriad data comes from developing some sort of predictive capacity. “If we do x, how much of y will happen? If we get this much y, how does that impact z?” The questions you will want to ask of your data are numerous, but the answers can only be as good as the data at your disposal. We need to have the ability to design systems, gather and analyze the data, and communicate the findings if online education leaders want to make good decisions, steward resources well, and operate stable, sustainable organizations that produce predictable results. The sophisticated financial models mentioned above are impossible without the ability to predict and produce results. Without predictability, the appetite for investment quickly disappears.

5. Online Processes Adapt to Support On-Campus Success

Higher education institutions that create and grow successful online programs will build systems, processes, and functions that can provide best-practice models for evolving on-campus operations. Not everything that an online team does will make sense for on-campus offices, but some elements can translate. Data-driven marketing, targeted tracking, nurturing of high-potential inquiries and prospects, proactive and intrusive retention outreach triggered by student actions (or inaction), and full lifecycle research for net promotion, awareness, and satisfaction feedback all support student success for on-campus students.

Most universities and colleges designate faculty or staff as academic advisors for on-campus students. Additionally, a team dedicated specifically to student retention may produce a lot of value for larger institutions that struggle to re-enroll students after their first term or year—the most critical decision points for re-enrollment. Dedicated retention specialists focus on establishing relationships and achieving resolution for student issues rather than just completing transactions. Many universities already have experience with this focused activity. Some specialized student programs and affinity groups are good examples of retention specialists working with small, targeted populations. What would be the impact if this kind of engagement existed for all students? How many percentage points of additional student retention would it take to cover the cost of providing this kind of relationship development and support? In addition to the overall benefit of increased retention, how valuable are the additional feelings of satisfaction, connection, and belonging that could be achieved?

6. Micro-credentials, Short Courses and Certificates

Many universities have offered bite-sized educational experiences for decades. These public-facing programs often present offerings such as certificates, short courses, and opportunities for extended and continuing study for personal, professional, and lifelong learning. To realize the potential of micro-credentials and badges, these university functions and organizations will need to be more closely incorporated into the organizational core and supported more directly by their institutions.

The most successful colleges and universities in the nontraditional educational space are those that offer large catalogs of program options, have a strong bench of professionally engaged instructors, maintain deep corporate connections, and communicate to their students the direct pathways that will allow them to transition to credit and degree completion options – even if students never follow those pathways. Merely offering courses and calling them micro-credentials or badges will not be enough to attract participation.

These public-facing short programs will need to be offered online, with some face-to-face options also available. The drivers for this kind of learning will vary greatly and depend upon the institution’s brand recognition and value, the corporate partnerships that will drive awareness and enrollment, the economic environment, and the educational interests of the communities where the institutions are most well known and have the most appeal. What works for one university in one city or region may not work for another in a different city or region.


What do we do to prepare for and thrive during the next five years? The conversation between Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat and Alice is especially relevant to those trying to develop a strategy and roadmap:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Knowing your intended destination is essential before starting a new endeavor. Is the goal to diversify revenue streams, diversify the audience the institution serves; reach a specific enrollment or financial target; serve a particular constituency, stakeholder or audience; expand the institution’s reputation and reach; generate revenue to subsidize another struggling area within the institution; or create options for existing students? Maybe it’s several of these or something that’s not on this list.

The financial model, the expectations for outcomes, the patience for return on investment, the resource commitment, and the process to develop projects and initiatives will all depend on how your institution answers these questions. Understanding the expected outcomes and measures of success are critical to laying the right foundation for the project.

Helping your university and college leaders understand the scope of the endeavor, the competitive environment that must be engaged, the level of investment required and the institutional attention and talent resources that must be committed will require the online leader to be at the table and communicating with the university’s C-level officers. Administrative and academic leaders nationwide have seen the positive impacts that online learning can produce. Now they must decide if they will build upon the experiences of the recent past and expand, maintain, or ignore future opportunities and their accompanying costs required for a successful online learning venture within their institutions.

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