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Affordable Degrees Served Up Online and in Hybrid (“Blended Education”) Models, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

For several years, students at a wide range of colleges and universities have been taking at least a few courses online, typically in low-level, basic classes.  Today, however, a growing number of students are getting a large part (of even all) of their classes online, at traditional nonprofit colleges and universities, or at for-profit schools.  Online courses afford students the ability to set their own schedules and are typically less expensive than traditional colleges and universities. 
A strong trend is the growing number of online undergraduate and graduate programs available from brick and mortar campuses, whether completely via the internet or as a hybrid of online instruction and in-person courses.  The campus closings during the Coronavirus pandemic accelerated this trend dramatically.  Some states are attempting to use hybrid education, relying heavily on online methods, to enable students in certain university courses to obtain an undergraduate degree for less than $10,000.  Miami Dade College is offering students a choice of eight bachelor’s degree programs designed to have a total cost of less than $10,000.  (Florida college costs are already among the lowest in the nation.)
Arizona State University is widely recognized for its aggressive adoption of technologies including online classes combined with classroom learning.  Earning some college credit while in high school may be a viable strategy in keeping costs down.  In addition to a wide range of degrees available on-campus and via blended on-campus/online programs, Arizona State offers online-only undergraduate degrees ranging from art history to criminal justice to political science and English.  Online-only masters’ programs include those in business analytics, nutrition, Engineering and an MBA.  Online programs are attracting higher numbers of top-tier students hoping to save costs and avoid spiraling student debt.
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech offers online master’s degrees in computer science for about $7,000.  As of late 2020, the program had almost 10,559 students, with an average age of 35.  About 90% of the students were employed while studying part-time.  The program offers students the ability to interact with their professors via a dedicated website.  One Georgia Tech professor noted that he interacted far more with his online students than with those he saw in his classroom.
Nonprofit University of the People, based in Pasadena, California, began offering an online MBA program in 2016.  Most students pay $2,400 to sit for 12 exams.  Companies like HP and Microsoft help fund scholarships for their employees.  By late 2020, the MBA program had almost 9,000 students.  Overall, University of the People had more than 44,000 students from more than 200 countries and territories.
Many students are electing to study on their own and then take rigorous tests from schools such as the University of Wisconsin or the University of Indianapolis to earn course credits.  The University of Indianapolis has a dedicated test center where exams are proctored and are available at modest cost.  The concept, which awards degrees based on competency rather than classroom hours, is unique, but it may grow.  Western Governors University in Utah, chartered in 1996, focuses on competency-based education and had a total enrollment as of the end of 2020 of 129,169.  The average age of students at WGU is about 35 and 70% of its students work full-time.
Integrated or hybrid education also pairs university study with outsourced courses, often combining liberal arts classes with technical training.  Trilogy Education Services (www.trilogyed.com), for example, offers skill-based technology classes called boot camps on university campuses.  Participating partners include the University of Washington and the University of Pennsylvania.  Trilogy was acquired by 2U, Inc. in 2019 for $750 million.  A similar technology training company is Make School (www.makeschool.com) in San Francisco, which offers computer science courses at Dominican University of California.  Students earn bachelor’s degrees and pay for their educations through income-share agreements which pledge a percentage of future income when they find jobs.
Lanham, Maryland-based 2U enables brick and mortar universities to digitize courses by providing software and marketing support to attract applicants.  2U partnered with the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.  By 2018, UNC had become the one of the largest MBA providers, with 938 students, or about double its previous student body, without constructing a single new classroom.  2U’s online-program manager (OPM) provides a cloud-based content management platform to connect students and staff.  The company’s success has inspired a number of competitors, including Coursera (www.coursera.org), which partners with the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan; and Edx (www.edx.org), which works with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley.

Here’s One Way to Lower the Cost of College: Free Tuition
Several U.S. states have initiated programs to provide free tuition to students who qualify.  The programs often focus on community college students, while placing caps on maximum family income.  In April 2017, New York became the first state to offer free tuition at all public two- and four-year colleges, with an income cap that will climb to $125,000 by 2020. 
In 2013, Tennessee devised a program that aims to boost the level of adults with either a college degree or a technical certificate to 55% from 32% by 2025, based on readily available scholarships (including private funding and monies generated through the state’s lottery) and increased usage of federal student aid.  The program was quickly successful, and led to a significant drop in the use of student loans. Enrollment at community and technical colleges soared. 
As of 2021, there were 368 programs in the U.S. offering free higher education, according to the College Promise Campaign (collegepromise.org).  Historically, many excellent American universities offered free tuition, and sometimes covered all student costs.  For example, Rice University in Houston, Texas famously provided free tuition until the mid-1960s, thanks to a significant endowment.  However, such programs are largely defunct, except for the noteworthy exception of Berea College in Berea Kentucky, that offers a “No-Tuition Promise” to students.  One of the ways that the school accomplishes this is by requiring all students to agree to work at Berea College for no less than 10 hours weekly, often at the day-to-day maintenance tasks that keep the campus in operation.  Students get work experience while they avoid thousands of dollars yearly in costs.

     Another trend in education is that the average college student is older than in the past.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, almost 40% of college students were 25 or older in 2017, compared to only 25% in 1965.  To attract older students (many of whom have already been working in full-time careers), colleges and universities are offering shorter, faster credentialing, as well as college credit for job experience.  Purdue University acquired online education provider Kaplan University in 2017. partly to serve older students.  Purdue quickly formed a new, public university called Purdue University Global, comprised of Kaplan’s 15 campuses.  Another school that caters to older students is Colorado State University-Global, which was founded in 2008 and had 18,000 students by 2020.


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