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What Scale Really Means for Higher Ed

Scale in higher education requires putting the student first, making learning accessible in terms of time and money, and setting them up for postgraduation success.

In the wake of several in-depth Wall Street Journal articles discussing tuition increases and the lack of transparency in financial data, one thing has become exceedingly clear: Higher education institutions cannot maintain the current pace of tuition hikes. The cost of education has far outpaced inflation at a whopping 12% increase per year and a nearly 748% increase since 19631.

Even with recent inflation, continual tuition increases are not sustainable. It’s beyond time to explore new solutions.

In the past, schools have rightfully cited state budget cuts as a culprit, but analysis shows that tuition increases far outweigh the decrease in state funds. At the same time, institutions have invested heavily to attract the best students, with large ticket expenditures such as state-of-the-art recreation centers and new dorms2.

Expenses like these aim to attract top students, but the cost falls on all those enrolled, pushing the price tag of education far too high for many students to afford.

Given that schools can’t realistically continue to increase rates, developing scalable solutions seems the most sensible option for public higher education.

Unpacking Higher Education Revenue and Student Burden

According to the Wall Street Journal’s examination of flagship universities, spending rose by 38% between 2002 and 2022. During that time, state support declined, but tuition and fee revenue continued to increase by $2.40 for every $1 in state budget reduction2.

The typical student has seen a 64% price increase. As the nation struggles with a federal student debt crisis exceeding $1.78 trillion in student loans3, students simply cannot and will not keep covering these costs.

Challenges abound for universities that support their increased spending by raising tuition fees.

With confidence in degree ROI waning4, the federal student financial aid program in some flux and the climate unfavorable to traditional age enrollment growth, there’s little hope that universities can price their way out of these challenges.

This is a major conundrum for the coming decade—finding alternative ways to add to revenue without increasing tuition or expecting any additional state funding.

What Is Scale in the Context of Higher Ed?

Historically, higher education stayed away from discussing quality education at scale, as if the two things must be mutually exclusive.

However, developing solutions to offer quality education to a wider audience allows universities to expand their missions and truly serve their student base in a meaningful way.

With scalable options, universities can build their global brand while unlocking economic opportunities for a whole new generation. They can diminish the barriers to higher education for many without sacrificing the quality of their offerings.

Innovating with Scalable Solutions

So, what’s the next move? Some innovative leaders have bucked past trends and embraced scalability to serve more students without sacrificing quality.

A few examples include:

Using performance-based admissions to increase enrollment

The University of Colorado Boulder offers performance-based admissions for its Master of Engineering Management, Master of Science in Electrical Engineering, Master of Science in Data Science and Master of Science in Computer Science. Students must maintain a B average in graduate-level degree coursework to continue, but they are also able to take noncredit courses to try out the offerings before committing to paying tuition. Students there cite performance-based admissions as the top attraction for enrollment.

Illinois Institute of Technology, Ball State University and Northeastern University also offer performance-based admissions for their Master of Science programs.

Offering professional certifications and prior learning credit

In a recent Coursera5 global study, 88% of learners believe that a professional certification offered by an industry leader will help them stand out to employers, and 75% are more likely to choose a degree program that offers industry certification.

Industry certifications can open opportunities for entry-level jobs. Many students build on these certificates to secure a position, then continue toward a degree for greater growth opportunities. For example, 35% of students in the University of London’s Bachelor of Computer Science program have also completed the Google IT Support Certification.

Offering prior learning credit options helps students gain credit toward their degree through open content and certification courses. It’s a powerful tool to drive recruitment, and courses can help adult learners gain employment immediately.

Adding or increasing virtual and hybrid solutions

Developing virtual and hybrid solutions gives institutions leverage to reach a wider audience with their degree programs. It also benefits learners by making it possible to work around their schedules and by removing accessibility barriers.

Bringing in the power of generative AI

For a global audience and learners who may have communication barriers, generative AI offers tools to translate materials and make them easier to understand. At the same time, generative AI is quickly becoming an essential skill in the workforce.

Moving Toward a More Inclusive Future in Higher Education

Budgetary constraints abound in higher education, but it’s not only about dollars and cents. We must take a pragmatic approach to solving the very real fiduciary challenges without sacrificing educational quality or accessibility.

Developing scalable options delivers a much-needed alternative to the status quo while meeting students where they are and creating an environment that supports their ability to excel, scholastically and professionally.



  1. College Tuition Inflation Rate,” 2023
  2. Colleges Spend Like There’s No Tomorrow. These Places Are Just Devouring Money,” The Wall Street Journal 2023
  3. What Caused the $1.8 Trillion Student Debt Crisis?” Best Colleges 2023
  4. Americans’ Confidence in Higher Education Down Sharply,” Gallup 2023
  5. Advancing Higher Education with Industry Micro-Credentials”, Coursera 2023