Predicting the Unpredictable: What Will 2016 Hold for Online Higher Education?

As the year ends, it’s tempting to look forward and predict what will happen in 2016. 2015 was a big year for online higher education, with more emphasis placed on outcomes and innovative ideas, such as competency-based education, gaining traction.

Although I do not have a crystal ball, I do foresee some trends becoming even more important in 2016. Institutions that correctly predict where education is going are able to successfully crest the wave, instead of drowning in the competition. Here are just a few of my thoughts about what 2016 holds; next year, I’ll check back in and see if I was Nostradamus, or totally off base!

Trend #1: Competency-based Education (CBE)

More adult students than ever before are going back to school, and they are bringing with them a unique set of skills and experiences. Those skills have value, and students are looking for ways to streamline their educational experience while leveraging their life experience. Enter competency-based education.

This education model is still in its infancy, but it’s gaining traction. The U.S. Department of Education has approved financial aid for some experimental programs, and even more colleges and universities are launching these programs.

As results start to emerge, I predict even more colleges will invest in this model of education. However, I also predict that challenges will be identified, such as proper assessment and ensuring a high-quality education for all students.

In addition to CBE programs, I believe badges will also continue to gain traction in 2016. These badges will serve as signifiers that students have completed a short course of study in a specific program, but have not earned a full degree. Badges also can be offered to acknowledge competencies students already have before beginning their education. While I do not think employers will find badges meaningful anytime soon, I do think colleges and universities will begin to incorporate them into their degree programs.

Trend #2: New Emerging Skills Training (NEST)

Higher education, and specifically online higher education, has been focusing on providing students with the skills they need for employment. I predict that 2016 will see an even sharper focus on NEST education, such as nanodegrees and bootcamps.

2015 already saw the popularity of coding bootcamps boom. Even the White House got into the act, making coding bootcamps a key part of its TechHire initiative, designed to help train Americans for technology jobs.

I think coding bootcamps are only the beginning of NEST education. First, I think coding bootcamps are continuing to innovate how, and what, they deliver. From going online to teaching new languages, coding bootcamps are as dynamic as the technology they teach. And with placement rates at 95 percent or above, they are providing a benefit to both employers and employees, making them a smart choice for a changing economy.

But it’s not just coding bootcamps that can offer this kind of innovative, targeted education. In 2016, I think we are going to see the emergence of a similar model, but for different skill sets. Marketing bootcamps already exist, and I think they will grow in popularity. Other skills can also be translated to this environment. For those who are looking for the skills needed for jobs in specific fields, short, intense training programs provide a solution — one that will become increasingly popular in 2016.

MOOCs too will continue to evolve and be a pillar of the NEST concept. While the boom, and bust, of the MOOC cycle was never as dramatic as anticipated, MOOCs still offer a valuable resource for those looking to learn specific skills in a flexible, inexpensive format. 2015 saw the marriage of MOOCs and enterprise, and I think that relationship will only continue in 2016; Udacity, Coursera and EdX have already begun to make this move. I also think MOOCs will continue to look for ways to offer credit, or degrees, to their students. However, those institutions that host MOOCs, especially the Ivy Leagues, may become skittish about providing credit-bearing content for these courses, which I think will lead to an evolution in how MOOCs reach people and will help refine their mission.

Trend #3: Retention

As college enrollments decline for the fourth straight year, those institutions that want to succeed will do well to focus not just on enrollments, but on keeping those students who do enroll. Making sure that graduation rates rise, even as enrollments drop, can be critical to remaining a vital part of the education landscape.

In 2016, I think institutions will focus on implementing best practices for enrollment, such as offering tutoring services; developing clear, easy-to-follow course maps; offering personal support to students early and often; and ensuring technology works smoothly so students have a seamless educational experience.

Big data will play a key role in this focus. As more data is available, it needs to be aggregated and analyzed to understand trends. In higher ed, that could mean analyzing data from sources such as the SIS, LMS, alumni data, social media and more. With this data, institutions can understand who is enrolling, who is graduating and where the holes in the net are that let students leave without graduating. Then, strategies and tactics can be devised to plug those holes and increase retention rates.

Trend #4: Enterprise Partnerships

Recently, a number of high-profile partnerships were developed between colleges and private business — AT&T and Georgia Tech, Starbucks and Arizona State University and Strayer@Work are just a few examples.

I predict these partnerships to increase in 2016. Not only are these fantastic PR tools for both the university and the business, they also help develop a pipeline of talented, trained, loyal employees. And since schooling and work are intertwined, they also help increase the retention and enrollment numbers colleges and universities are looking to boost.

I also think we will see the development of company-specific degrees, where colleges offer degree programs specifically tailored to the needs of their enterprise partners. This might include an emphasis on HR, or supply chain management or new technology initiatives — whatever areas of training companies find they need.

I caution those developing these partnerships, however, that simply offering a tuition discount won’t be enough. Instead, institutions need to offer curriculum that will help employees add value immediately, so it needs to be focused on the needs of the business.

Trend #5: Proving Outcomes

One of the reasons, I think, that enrollments are declining is that college is increasingly being seen as an expense without a return. This is misguided, of course; there are plenty of studies that those with a college degree have higher lifetime earnings than those without. But for many, the stereotype of liberal arts majors working part time at a coffee shop for the rest of their lives feels true.

To combat this, in 2016 I think colleges and universities need to focus on outcomes. I recommend:

  • Graduation rates
  • Job placement rates
  • How quickly student debt is paid off
  • Salary changes

Essentially, track and collect data that proves a college degree pays for itself, and faster than students might think.

Trend #6: Reverse Transfer

There are approximately 37 million adults with some college but no degree. Reverse transfer offers a way for these students to fairly quickly earn an associate degree while also working on their bachelor’s. Reverse transfer gives students who have earned credit, but no degree, from a four-year institution the ability to transfer those credits to a community college and earn an associate degree.

This path seems counterintuitive to many, but it can help four-year institutions appeal to a sizable population while also motivating them to stay in school and earn a bachelor’s degree. Reverse transfer also can help build stronger relationships with community colleges, which are an important pipeline into four-year institutions. In 2016, I predict more universities will take advantage of this degree model.

As I said above, I do not have a crystal ball! The one thing I am sure of is that 2016 will bring plenty of change, some of it predicted, and some of it entirely unexpected. But the better we can anticipate what higher education holds, the better prepared we will be to meet students where they are. What are your predictions for the state of the industry in 2016?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: