Ross, C. (2012) Are the Sleeping Giants Awake?  Non-Profit Universities Enter Online Education at Scale Boston: The Parthenon Group

Interesting report comparing growth of online enrollments between the for-profits (e.g. University of Phoenix) and not-for profit (private and public universities) in the USA.


Definition here is important. The report has a difficult graph to read (Figure 1) of the largest online schools, in terms of ‘online only enrolments, 2011‘, broken down by whether they are for profit or not for profit, and the not-for profits by whether they are ‘inclusive‘ or ‘selective‘.

1. The study identified 10 non-profits with over ‘10,000 students in online courses‘ (I am assuming these are students taking credit courses):

  • Southern New Hampshire University
  • Penn State University’s World Campus
  • UMassachusetts Online
  • University of Maryland University College
  • Park University, Missouri
  • Thomas Edison State College, New Jersey
  • Central Texas College
  • Western Governors’ University
  • Excelsior College, New York
  • Rio Salado Community College, Arizona.

2. The Apollo Group (which includes the University of Phoenix) singlehandedly enrolls more students in the U.S. than the ten largest non-profit institutions combined.

3. Most selective non-profit universities have thus far chosen to not enter the online learning space.  While these institutions make up almost half of the approximately 18M annual post-secondary enrollments, they currently represent less than 20% of all online enrollments.

4. Almost 50% of online students …opt to apply only to a single school.  Less than one in five students applies to a minimum of three schools.

5. Online education has historically experienced minimal cost competition, but the emergence of nonprofit institutions in the online space will almost certainly change that.

6. Students appear willing to pay a price premium for stronger brands.The role of brand and marketing in general is under-leveraged broadly in education today.’

7. Despite being late entrants, non-profit institutions…are quickly earning a reputation for providing a quality product to students.

8. Likely, a small number of rapidly expanding institutions will ultimately emerge from the pack and be able to leverage increased revenue and brand awareness to attract faculty, improve the student experience, and build new relationships with employers. The race is on to scale as quickly as possible, and the winners will almost certainly be those institutions that can differentiate themselves in the eyes of students, faculty, and accreditors.


I am somewhat surprised, not so much by the 10 institutions listed here, but the assumption in the report that these are the only non-profit institutions with 10,000 online student registrations or more in the USA. I would have expected universities such as Wisconsin, Purdue, Central Florida, Florida State, the Colorado Community College System, and many others to have more than 10,000 online student course enrollments a year, although I accept that few will have as many online course enrollments as most of the 10 institutions listed. Many (such as Penn State and UMUC) have been offering online credit courses on a large scale for over 15 years so are hardly ‘new entrants.’

It is important to note that this report refers exclusively to the USA. For-profits so far have made little headway in Canada. Perhaps for this reason, Canada is also likely to have at least 10 non-profit universities and colleges with 10,000 online student enrollments or more. Here is my list (I’m guessing – anyone with more accurate ‘official’ figures please correct me):

  • Simon Fraser University, British Columbia
  • Thompson Rivers University, British Columbia
  • University of British Columbia
  • Athabasca University, Alberta
  • University of Ottawa, Ontario
  • Laurentian University, Ontario
  • University of Guelph, Ontario
  • Télé-université, Québec
  • Laval Université, Québec
  • Memorial University, Newfoundland

I don’t have any way to even guess online enrollments for colleges. Anyone from a Canadian two year college with more than 10,000 online student enrollments, please let me know.

However, none of this should distract from the main message of the Parthenon Report: that there is plenty of scope, especially for selective institutions, to expand rapidly into online learning for credit.

If they do, though:

  • they will need this to be a major institutional strategy,
  • they will need to scale up considerably,
  • there will be increasing competition so success will be determined eventually by a combination of pricing, brand, and above all quality in supporting online learners.
  • they will need a sensible business plan to fund it (see Phil Hill’s excellent dissection of the failure of the University of California Online’s debacle)

I suspect all this applies just as well to Canada as to the USA. After all, the market is not limited to only Canadian students. Although we do have some bigger players, with the possible exception of Athabasca and Télé-université, which are exclusively distance education institutions, no Canadian ‘selective’ institution is really operating at a very large or strategic scale at the moment. Why not?



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