As Grad Degrees And Credentials Boom, Prestigious Schools Are Winning

column | Higher Education

As Grad Degrees And Credentials Boom, Prestigious Schools Are Winning

By Sean Gallagher (Columnist)     Apr 8, 2019

As Grad Degrees And Credentials Boom, Prestigious Schools Are Winning

Graduate education has been a bright spot in U.S. higher education, as getting a graduate degree has become far more common in recent decades, particularly for the millennial generation.

In the job market and among professionals, demand for credentials and learning beyond the bachelor’s degree is strong. According to data from Burning Glass Technologies, 19 percent of U.S. job openings in the year 2018 requested a graduate degree. Overall, 13 percent of American adults now hold a graduate degree.

Back in 1995, only 4.5 percent of U.S. adults had attained a master’s degree before age 30–but by 2017, this share had doubled to 9.2 percent. Over the last decade, workers with education beyond the bachelor’s degree have continued to be rewarded with higher wages–and employment in master’s-level occupations is projected to grow at the fastest rate of any level, 17 percent, between 2016 and 2026, according to U.S. Department of Labor forecasts.

That growth has been fueled in part by online options. About 37 percent of all graduate education in the U.S. is now online or blended. The master’s degree market is also a hotbed of innovation, as some of the world’s top universities are now experimenting with MOOC-based degrees at substantially lower price points. And, growing demand for graduate degrees has been central to the online program management, or OPM, market—one of the hottest areas of edtech deal-making and investment.

This post-bachelor’s learning boom goes well beyond just traditional graduate degrees. It increasingly includes numerous types of microcredentials, certificates and certifications, coding bootcamps and informal courses. These offerings respond to the increasing need for lifelong learning and career development.

Prestigious Universities Are Embracing Online Education

Less than a decade ago, the University of Phoenix led the online education market. Only a handful of colleges and universities in the top-40 of the U.S. News & World Report national rankings had any significant online degree presence. At Ivy League schools, online education offerings were virtually non-existent. (The few exceptions included for example Columbia University’s distance engineering programs and Cornell’s for-profit enterprise eCornell and its professionally focused non-credit certificate programs.)

Today this has changed significantly—and not only due to MOOCs, which were an important catalyst. Harvard University, Yale University, MIT, University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, Northwestern University and many other top-ranked universities are offering various online and hybrid degrees, certificates and microcredentials.

Given the focus on selectivity and a limited number of seats in undergraduate admissions—which with the recent admissions scandal is leading to heightened debates about selective admissions, the value of prestige, and access and equity—one might assume that in graduate education, the most prestigious universities have sought to turn away students and keep their scale small, lest they dilute their brands.

However, this is not the case, as professional graduate education has become more popular. As of 2017, according to U.S. Department of Education data, right alongside Walden University, Grand Canyon University, Liberty University, and Western Governors University, the largest-scale awarders of master’s degrees in the country included many of the most prestigious and highly ranked universities: New York University, University of Southern California, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard, and the University of Michigan, among others.

Just a bit farther down the list we find Georgia Tech, which in just two years from 2015 to 2017 grew the number of master’s degrees it awarded by 34 percent, on the strength of its disruptively low-cost MOOC-driven degrees—a groundbreaking but increasingly common offering. The University of Pennsylvania, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, and the University of Michigan—alongside a number of others—are also now offering low-cost, MOOC-based and microcredential-linked online master’s degrees.

In the MOOC market, survey data from Class Central suggests that when students select a course, the college or university offering it is at the top of prospective students’ decision-making criteria (second only to the topic of the course itself)—and is a more important selection factor than the course instructor or course ratings and reviews. In the coding bootcamp sector, the competitive landscape is increasingly shaped by the success of firms like Trilogy Education Services—which has partnered with top-ranked universities such as Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, UNC Chapel Hill, and many others to leverage their valuable non-profit university brands in offering short, focused job market-aligned technology programs.

At the graduate level, even top-ranked institutions are embracing growth, and enrollment is more open access for some new programs than in the past. These world-famous institutions are well-positioned to gain a larger share of a consolidating online education market on the strength of their brands.

In professionally-oriented master’s degree programs—which account for a majority of graduate enrollment nationally—admissions standards have long been less selective, more open and more holistic. Many graduate schools—including but well beyond professional programs—are increasingly moving away from relying on the GRE test for admission. As the pursuit of post-baccalaureate education becomes more common—and more needed—graduate schools and their admissions processes are increasingly more attentive to access and diversity, rather than being predicated on test scores and selectivity.

Another important trend in this direction is a “flipped” or “inverted” admissions process in which students can prove their abilities in open online courses and microcredential programs—and articulate or stack this experience as they qualify into full degree programs. MITx and edX from the beginning emphasized this approach in the launch of the MicroMasters—and this strategy that also allows learners to “try before they buy” a full degree is being explored by numerous edX and Coursera partner institutions offering online degrees.

The graduate and professional education market of the 2020s will be substantially more dynamic and competitive than the idyllic notions of the “grad school” of yesteryear that still dominate discussions about master’s degrees and lifelong learning.

Student and employer demands and competitive pressure are each driving master’s programs to become more online, more modular, more accessible and more affordable. Based on the experiments taking place today at many pace-setting universities, we are in the early innings of a significant transition.

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