Mega-universities are on the rise. Institutions like Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, Liberty University, Grand Canyon University and Arizona State University are aiming to reshape higher education through massive investments in technology, new approaches to teaching and credentialing, and an appetite for growth.
Their enrollments—driven by online students—are skyrocketing, even as colleges and universities on the whole see a decline. SNHU now serves 130,000 students, and WGU’s enrollment is clocking in at around 110,000 students.
If the narrative sounds familiar, it is. About 20 years ago, a handful of for-profit universities began following a similar playbook, albeit with a profit motive and, in many cases, return-hungry shareholders to answer to. At its peak in 2010, the dominant for-profit, the University of Phoenix, boasted an enrollment of more than 470,000 students, nearly four times as much as the largest of the current so-called mega-universities.
Widespread reports of poor student outcomes and stories of misleading students into enrolling shredded not just the predatory actors, but the national for-profit sector as a whole. Reputable institutions might have been better positioned had they invested in developing outcome standards that better reflected the value they aimed to offer to their students.
The conventional way of evaluating the quality of postsecondary institutions center on federal graduation and loan default rates. But they do not reflect the realities or needs of nontraditional students—many of whom are working adults, returning to school or raising families—nor the priorities of schools that serve them. Federal graduation rates, for example, account only for first-time, full-time students, which account for a small fraction of the students that large for-profits serve.
Both measures also run the risk of encouraging apples-and-oranges comparisons between institutions that serve very different populations. Is there really much value in comparing open-access institutions that try to welcome as many learners as possible with “elite” schools serving a limited slice of students who often hail from privileged backgrounds and who are incredibly well-prepared and situated for success?
Today’s mega-universities, which serve a growing population of nontraditional students, should be leading the charge on quality assurance. They should be eager to prove—with clear and verified accounting—that they are a truly different model, not just the for-profit playbook remade under a non-profit brand. Such transparency would also help safeguard and advance the higher education field more broadly.
Mega-universities are, arguably, currently operating under a federal outcomes structure that is better suited to institutions serving a non-traditional population. When the Department of Education fully updates the College Scorecard, it will be possible to track completion and earnings outcomes of students who use federal financial aid down to the programmatic level—and not just for first-time, full-time students. That will be a welcome advance.
But the Scorecard will still be incomplete, as it will count only those students who receive federal financial aid. Many still pay out of pocket. And mega-universities are increasingly developing direct partnerships with companies and employers that cover tuition and fees for their employees.
The updated Scorecard also will not paint a picture of the value an institution adds—what investor Ryan Craig terms “distance travelled”—relative to how a student would be expected to do based on their background and life circumstances. In other words, the Scorecard will only show the absolute salary a graduate would make, not the growth in earnings an adult student could expect. Nor will it include other measures of student outcomes—such as consumer satisfaction and well-being—beyond debt, completion and earnings.
These outcomes could also extend well beyond employment and earnings to measures of learning, civic engagement and students’ retrospective satisfaction. Some of the mega-universities are moving in this direction. WGU has a section of its website devoted to student outcomes, including measures of engagement and student satisfaction, employers’ ratings of its graduates, and documentation of the increase in earnings among its graduates. SNHU has conducted its own surveys to learn what its online alumni are earning (an average of $51,000 within 12 months of graduation, according to its president, Paul LeBlanc).
Large institutions are far from the only ones that should be proactive in establishing and proving the value of the programs they provide. Online offerings powered by online program managers, for-profit universities, competency-based programs, liberal arts institutions, rural schools, religious institutions and more would benefit from clarifying their value to students.
But whatever outcomes measures they choose, institutions must also commit to an independent audit to verify their claims. Given the recent news about traditional institutions such as the University of Oklahoma reporting falsified data around its alumni giving rate for two decades, similarly with Temple University’s Fox School of Business, self-reporting without having an independent audit behind the claims is not enough.
Throughout the United States, trust in institutions public and private is in decline, and that extends to colleges and universities. Higher education needs to do more to restore faith in what it does and the value it adds to people’s lives.
For the innovators stretching the bounds of what higher education looks like and who it serves, the burden to prove their worth will always be higher. For-profit institutions have made important advances in online pedagogy and in understanding adult learners, but too much of that expertise was swept away along with their tarnished brands. And the field—and ultimately students—were hurt in the process.