The First 1-Million Student University

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Every year for the last decade, the number of degree-seeking students in the U.S. has fallen. In 2021, we’re down 2.5 million enrollees from our peak. But that doesn’t mean people have stopped learning or that some universities aren’t thriving. Coursera claims 76 million learners are enrolled on its platform, and at its zenith, the University of Phoenix enrolled 460,000 people.

With that in mind, what will the future of higher ed look like? And why don’t we already have a 1-million student university in higher ed yet?

Brandon Busteed, President of University Partners and Global Head of Learn-Work Innovation at Kaplan, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to postulate how higher ed gets to its first 1-million student university, and the perceived brand roadblocks in the way.

What Does a 1-million Student University Look like?

If you’re imagining one million students descending on Durham, North Carolina to enroll in-person at Duke University, we have good news: 

That will never happen.

When we talk about a million students, we’re not talking about the ones studying at the physical campus. To keep the Duke example for a minute, that school enrolls about 6,000 undergraduates, and basically all of them live in or around Durham.

So we’re not talking about something like Duke only 165 times bigger. We may see on-campus institutions such as Duke continue to flourish, but they won’t swell to a million students or anything near it. 

The first 1-million student university will be virtual. If you didn’t believe that in 2019, you do now. COVID has proven it.

The school may include satellite and ground facilities in different locations around the country or the world, but the main campus will be virtual. We’re talking about fully online programs — asynchronous, synchronous, or hybrid learners making up the bulk of enrollees. 

That’s how we get to a university of a million students.

Why We Won’t Get There with Traditional Learners Alone

To get a million students, universities will need to take a broad view of learning.

U.S. higher education has been in a decline for 10 years, and forecasts that look at population, age demographics, and other factors suggest we’ll see another 10 years of shrinkage. So degree-seekers aren’t the answer. But non-degree students who want to upskill or re-skill in the short term could unlock the door to growth. 

“As we think about a university of a million students,” Brandon said, “there are a lot of ways to break that down.” 

A percentage of that million — say, 30%  — will come from degree-seekers. Another substantial percentage will come in and out of short-form educational opportunities. These folks want intellectual fulfillment and stimulation. But most of our one million students are going to be looking for real accountability outcomes. They want to make more money, get a promotion, or change careers.

Universities can play a significant role in offering certificate programs, credentials, and new-collar apprenticeship-type programs to these prospective learners. 

Why are Google and SNHU Out-Enrolling Harvard?

Harvard, MIT, Duke, and the rest of the elite collegiate institutions have earned their reputation on selectivity. It’s tough to get in.

The new schools — the ones busting at the seams with students — are making their name on how many students they serve, not how many they leave out. So Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors, and the like are raking in students. 

Those degree-seekers who still want the on-campus experience and who hold the qualifications will continue to apply to traditional programs. But right now, Google and Amazon look like they’ll hit a million learners before any Ivy League institution will come close.

Now, plenty of people still have the qualifications to fill up Harvard, Duke, and the rest  without these institutions having to lower their admissions standards. But to enhance their student bodies will require change. 

“The elite universities are actually at more risk than anybody thinks,” Brandon said. “They’re at risk for ultimately being considered country clubs more than institutions of higher education.”

They disproportionately serve students and families from the highest income levels and do a very poor job enrolling from the bottom quintile. Across the Ivy League, only 3.8% of students come from the bottom quintile socioeconomically.

These schools are running the risk of being considered more of a country club than an elite institution of higher ed.

Next Steps for Universities Wanting to Scale

Think about mission impact. Don’t worry that creating accessible opportunities will result in brand erosion.

Obviously brand matters, and you want to protect your brand. But there’s a big difference between a brand that’s all about selectivity and a brand that’s about mission expansion. 

In the world, 10 million people have the IQ to get into Harvard. Now, they might not all be academically prepared, but so why should that be an issue? Why wouldn’t an elite institution start to offer preparatory programs for those people who have the intellectual capability and horsepower to do it? That’s not a down brand move. 

That is a mission expansion opportunity that the world would be thrilled to see. 

This post is based on a podcast interview with Brandon Busteed of Kaplan. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.