UMass Will Build a National Online College. But What About Its Previous...

Higher Education

UMass Will Build a National Online College. But What About Its Previous Online Offshoot?

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 7, 2019

UMass Will Build a National Online College. But What About Its Previous Online Offshoot?
U of Massachusetts at Amherst.

University of Massachusetts president Marty Meehan made a splash this week by announcing plans to build a large-scale online college for adult learners that aims to compete with giants like Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University.

But the announcement fails to mention that the University of Massachusetts already runs an extensive online-learning operation, known as UMassOnline, which was started in 2001 and currently serves more than 20,000 students. The University of Massachusetts is not a new entry into online learning, it was one of the industry’s earliest pioneers.

So how will this new effort be different?

At the moment, the focus of UMassOnline is something like a “service organization” to help campuses within the University of Massachusetts system deliver online courses, said Don Kilburn, CEO of UMassOnline, in an interview this week with EdSurge.

“Most of the current online students are locally based, or they have some proximity to campuses,” he said. “The demographic that we’re talking about in the new [online entity] are the roughly one million adults in the state of Massachusetts and roughly 34 million across the country who have some college but did not complete their degree.”

UMassOnline does already serve some of those national students, however, and its website says that it is “proud to be helping busy professionals, lifelong learners, and students worldwide continue their education, enhance their careers, and enrich their lives no matter where they're located.”

The biggest change may be in its ambition.

The University of Massachusetts board of trustees has set a goal of tripling its online enrollments as a result of creating the new online college, said Kilburn. He will continue to lead UMassOnline as he also leads the new online college announced this week.

Sean Gallagher, founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, said that UMass is in a good position to expand its online efforts because of its extensive experience with UMassOnline. But he said that it may be difficult to reach the scale of a place like Southern New Hampshire University, which has more 90,000 online students. “You can count on one hand the number of institutions that have grown at that pace and that scale,” he said.

Boosting the university’s online presence will likely require investments, including in marketing costs. Big online players like Southern New Hampshire University spend tens of millions each year on Google ads and other efforts to recruit students.

“We recognize there’s an investment in marketing needed here,” said Kilburn.

UMass officials have not decided on many of the details about the new college, including how it will be funded, said Kilburn, describing the announcement this week as “signaling our intent.” Officials also have not decided whether they will work with an online program manager, or OPM, companies that colleges turn to to outsource online operations.

Meehan, the UMass president, described the new online college as a necessary move for the institution’s long-term survival, citing demographic shifts that will likely mean far fewer college-age students in the region.

“Make no mistake—this is an existential threat to entire sectors of higher education. And New England, unfortunately, is ground zero,” he said this week during his State of the University address at which he announced the online college. “It’s predicted that over the next several years, four to five major national players with strong regional footholds will be established. We intend to be one of them.”

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