Today we welcome Steven Chaffin, Research Consultant, and Steve Graham, Senior Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, both from the University of Missouri System. Online learning is an increasingly attractive alternative for students and educational institutions, and yet, to be successful in this realm requires thoughtful and deliberate action. Let us learn from the trail-blazing ways of the University of Missouri. Enjoy!

Erin Walton — contract editor for WCET

Late last year, the University of Missouri System began efforts to increase our fully online enrollment by 25,000 new students by the year 2025. If you’ve glanced at Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education over the last few months, you’re familiar with our elevator pitch: We intend to create a comprehensive online platform designed to promote access and success. The UM System is not alone in these aspirations.Official sign of University of Missouri System including Columbia, Kansas City, Rolla, and St. Louis. Across the globe, institutions are embracing the core of Clayton Christensen’s notion of “disruptive innovations” that revitalize established models to provide high-quality alternatives at affordable costs. This language is ripe for a speech, press release, and a sensational reveal. Done well, online expansions can live up to promises and expand the reach of higher education. Done poorly, an institution can find itself facing hefty sunk costs.

As a public university system consisting of four public research universities in the Midwest, the UM System recognizes that it must create its own path to success. The eLearning market is becoming increasingly saturated by big names, making it harder for new faces to meaningfully compete in this field. For example, Western Governors University has already surpassed and Southern New Hampshire University is on the brink of enrolling 100,000 students each. Arizona State University has equally ambitious goals and is building a powerhouse system to achieve a similar scale. Further, the University of Maryland University College and the University of Massachusetts System have each unveiled large-scale programs to compete on national and global scales. As a public university system acting as a steward of taxpayer dollars, the UM System is accustomed to finding ways to do more with less. Without hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in front end development, we have recognized the need to be creative, thoughtful, and data-driven in charting our own path.

Looking inward, not outward

In describing the expansionary tendencies of colleges and universities, Christensen underscores a core driver of institutions moving online. By nature, as educational institutions, we want to improve and become bigger and better than we were yesterday. As a public institution, the UM System is driven to showcase our capacity to create value for the public. This has driven many institutions to develop national and global aspirations, something to which the online modality is naturally suited. By contrast, the University of Missouri System has a more local focus – to serve the students in Missouri and the contiguous states. There are several reasons for this.

Online and distance education are distinct

Online program offerings are often conflated, understandably, with distance education initiatives. eLearning enables Missouri students to take a course anywhere in the world with an ease that was difficult to imagine not long ago.

PIcture of Mun Y. Choi, president of the University of Missource system, giving an address.
Mun Y. Choi, president of the University of Missouri System, gives address to announce the new vision statement for the University of Missouri System: To advance the opportunities for success and well-being for Missouri, our nation and the world through transformative teaching, research, innovation, engagement and inclusion.

However, equating distance learning with online program offerings greatly undervalues the potential of the latter. A well-designed online course is more flexible and self-directed than a traditional postsecondary course, enabling students to access course materials and engage with class assignments on their own terms and timeline. This makes online offerings not only a way to try to reach students from far away—it’s a way to reach students in your own backyard who, for any number of reasons, find the current model for higher education inaccessible or undesirable.

To reach these students, we conducted an internal assessment to identify enrollment interest over the next five years, online education preferences, and common enrollment barriers. Our findings suggest a reachable population of over 160,000 Missourians and 740,000 prospective students from the Midwest. This puts the UM System’s goal of 25,000 students well within the realm of possibility and highlights the potential of state-centered strategies.

Online students care about familiarity and proximity

An internal survey of prospective students confirmed previous research on geographic implications of online learning: A large portion of prospective students prefer to enroll at an online institution located in the same state or region, typically within 100 miles of their home. This is because students prefer to attend a familiar college or university that they trust, one that is viewed as affordable relative to out-of-state options. Students also prefer institutions where it is easier to access resources and facilities, as well as those with an established reputation among state employers. The UM System will thus concentrate its efforts in the Midwest, where substantial needs remain.

Further, student preferences suggest that the UM System will maintain a competitive edge, even as out-of-state institutions attempt to enter the Missouri market. We have brand recognition in this region, have four public research universities spread geographically across the state, talented faculty from these four universities to draw upon, and over a decade of focused experience of providing online courses and programs for our on-ground students as well as those at a distance.

Substantial state-level needs remain

As a public land grant institution, serving state needs is central to our institutional mission. Expanding online programs could not only increase our enrollment and capacity, but also provide an opportunity to address substantial and mounting needs of the state. Statewide, Missouri is coming to terms with a trifecta of underwhelming economic indicators—low growth of GDP, jobs, and wages. Significant workforce needs, especially in health care, business, and IT, make it difficult for Missouri to fulfill its current and future needs. Three-quarters of a million Missourians currently have some college experience but no credential, which potentially puts them in what has been called a “purgatory” of significant debt with few benefits. Each of these problems creates challenges for Missouri’s ability to meet its “Big Goal” for 60 percent of Missourians to have a postsecondary credential by 2025 and to be the “Best in Midwest” for economic opportunity.

Graphic outlining the strategic investments made to the UM System. Graphic reads,
The UM System is providing up to $260M in strategic investments to support financially viable, mission-centric projects that will offer a positive return on investment and help the University move toward excellence. Investments in support of the Missouri compacts will be made over a five-year period and are meant to support bold, innovative and far-reaching proposals from the four universities. The breakdown outlined above includes investments of $1M and above.

The UM System is addressing these needs with new, workforce-aligned online programs that focus on the whole student. We’ve planned various strategies for these programs. Business and industry collaborations and cutting-edge data tools will allow the UM System to craft programs that align with the short- and long-term needs of the state and allow individual economic mobility. Improved pre-matriculation services that emphasize responsiveness and agility can overcome long-standing barriers to enrollment. Student success coaches who focus on the whole student can provide adult learners the support needed to balance competing obligations, access services, and graduate with a certificate or degree within a reasonable time. With these approaches, the UM System can take its smaller-scale, yet high-quality course development and instructional design to a broader audience. Furthermore, what we learn from designing online programs and from helping nontraditional students achieve their goals will produce innovations that support the broader university community, including on-ground students.

UM will begin offering courses on its new platform in fall 2020. There’s a lot of work to do between now and then, including the recruitment of a top-tier leader who can affect the transformational change needed for success; nothing is guaranteed. But if successful, we will have created a new pathway for institutions to compete in an increasingly crowded market.


Steven Chaffin picture


Steven Chaffin
Research Consultant
The University of Missouri System


Steve Graham picture.


Steve Graham
Senior Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs
The University of Missouri System




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