Nonprofits on the verge of overthrowing the University of Phoenix as the largest online university

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Few institutions have surpassed 100,000 students online, but Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University are on the brink.

Scott Pulsipher, president of WGU, said the fully online nonprofit institution’s enrollment is around 97,000 students.

Online enrollment at the Southern New Hampshire nonprofit, which has a traditional campus and an online branch, is approximately 93,000 students, said Paul LeBlanc, president of the university. The total number of SNHU registrations crossed the 100,000 mark earlier this year.

Observers said the two nonprofits may soon overtake the University of Phoenix as the largest online university in the United States. The only other university that remains within reach of 100,000 online students is Liberty University. But the Christian institution’s enrollment has declined in recent times, according to recent reports.

Phoenix spokespersons declined to comment. But several sources said Inside higher education that Phoenix’s for-profit registration number may have fallen below 100,000 recently, which would be the first time it has slipped below that number in 15 years.

Meteoric growth for nonprofits

“The for-profit brand has been tarnished,” said Trace Urdan, managing director of Tyton Partners, a higher education consultancy. He said government scrutiny, negative media coverage and self-inflicted scandals have created the impression that for-profit companies are untrustworthy.

“Nonprofits are now associated with quality,” said Urdan. “Students think, ‘I can trust Southern New Hampshire University because they told me 17 times in their TV commercial that they are not for profit.’ “

SNHU won’t stop telling people for being a nonprofit in the advertisements anytime soon. “It always matters,” said LeBlanc.

“We can debate the rightness or the unfairness of the attack on for-profit companies, but the market has been educated,” he said, adding that in the past, potential students had not interviewed admissions staff members about the university’s tax status. Now it is a matter of routine.

“Sometimes they don’t have the right language, so they ask, ‘Is this a real place?’ Said LeBlanc. “We tell them that we are a non-profit and that we have a campus, and they are reassured.”

Both Pulsipher and LeBlanc have said the decline in the for-profit sector has helped their institutions grow.

WGU’s expansion is accelerating, according to Pulsipher. He attributes the increase to the growing network of WGU alumni. About half of WGU students find the institution through referrals from friends and family. And Pulsipher said the increased respect for WGU graduates among employers and strong relationships with community colleges have also helped.

The institution is growing at an annual rate of 20%, which means that next year, WGU estimates it will gain an additional 20,000 students. When asked if there was a time when he could reach his ability, Pulsipher said, “We do not anticipate any limitation on our ability to evolve.”

“Our biggest challenge is that with growth and scale, we must always strive to provide an individualized experience for each student,” he said. “We are investing significantly to support the growth we anticipate. “

The university is investing in “great talent and great technology,” Pulsipher said. For example, it adds 80 to 100 new employees per month, many of whom are faculty members.

WGU would know quickly if he grew too fast, he said. Student metrics such as course completion and time to graduation are closely monitored by the university. If these started to decrease (or increase, in the case of the graduation delay), Pulsipher said, the university would reduce the number of students. “We would trade growth for quality,” Pulsipher said. But he said size and quality are not mutually exclusive.

At SNHU, registrations continue to grow but are no longer accelerating, LeBlanc said. The most “meteoric” period of growth for the institution was from 2012 to 2015. Since the economy picked up, LeBlanc said, growth has slowed a bit.

These days, SNHU targets non-traditional learners – mature students with college credit but no degree. That description fits 37 million potential students in the United States, LeBlanc said. But the university is also working to identify new pools of learners, in part by partnering with community colleges and high schools and providing educational opportunities for refugees and DACA beneficiaries.

The fall of the phoenix

The decline in registrations in Phoenix in recent years has benefited both WGU and SNHU. But many nonprofits are now competing and moving through the space with the help of online program management partners.

At its peak in 2010, Phoenix scored more than 470,000 students. This number had slipped to 130,000 students by 2016. And last year, the university firm 20 of its campus locations and laid off hundreds of employees.

Jane Oates, President of the Media Company Country of work, worked for Apollo Education Group (the holding company of Phoenix) until last year. When asked why college enrollment has plummeted, Oates said Phoenix made the conscious decision to focus more on the student experience. He also dropped all short courses to focus on degrees, she said.

Factors beyond Phoenix’s control may also have an effect. Oates said many institutions are struggling with enrollment and retention. “People tend to turn to education when they can’t find a job, and now there’s pretty much full employment,” she said. “It’s cyclical.

The national conversation on the federal government a paid job The regulations have made the average American “very skeptical” of for-profit education in general, Oates said. And Phoenix has faced its fair share of bad publicity. “No college is perfect, but I think the University of Phoenix came out of it all pretty much unscathed, both with military students and Title IV,” she said, referring to federal student aid programs.

Phil Hill, co-founder of Mindwires Consulting and co-author of e-Literacy blog, said Phoenix felt comfortable being the higher education “800-pound gorilla” and made several strategic mistakes. Specifically, he pointed to the millions of dollars Phoenix spent on custom technology that was not fully utilized. In recent years, the university replaced its officers and licensed directors. Last year, a group of investors bought Phoenix for $ 1.14 billion and deprived the university. (It had been listed on the stock exchange.)

“There was an all-out attack on the for-profit sector during the Obama administration, and it was successful,” Hill said. “It had a huge impact on the University of Phoenix. But the whole industry is down.

What about freedom?

ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine last week posted a scathing article on University of Liberty – a non-profit Christian institution with a traditional campus and a large online presence. Like Phoenix, Liberty’s online listings are said to be down. A Liberty official was quoted in the article as saying the university has deliberately reduced enrollment to ensure quality. But Hill said he didn’t buy that explanation.

“I think there has been a turnaround in entries and they’re trying to present it in a positive light,” Hill said. “They are in a niche market for Christian students, but that market has become much more competitive. The market is no longer a market where you can do a massive land grab. The terrain has changed and students have several options. Hill suggested Liberty was losing ground to the for-profit Grand Canyon University – another Christian university with a large online presence.

Liberty’s current online enrollment is around 85,000 students, the university said, including 15,500 at its Lynchburg, Virginia campus.

Getting past 100,000 students online is “pretty hard to do, and there are questions as to whether you should be doing it,” Hill said.

But LeBlanc and Pulsipher see no limit to the growth of their universities, at least if they continue to expand their operations as demand increases. With more students comes more student data, LeBlanc said, and that information can be used to improve the student experience. It is also easier to market multiple programs at once rather than individual programs.

Oates doesn’t think another institution will grow as big as Phoenix was in its prime. “If you get too big too quickly, things fall through the cracks,” she said. “I don’t think you’ll ever see someone get that big because of the quality of the competition. You have so many for-profit and non-profit competitors preying on the same students – it’s going to cut everyone’s numbers. “


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