- The University of Missouri System is centralizing access to online programs across its four institutions.
- The new portal, called Missouri Online, will include more than 260 online degrees and certificates. The system plans to add 22 more this year.
- Missouri joins several other public university systems in revamping access to their online programs as competition for remote learners intensifies, but scaling could prove difficult.
The $20 million endeavor included the creation of a systemwide online learning platform. The system also noted additional investment in learning technology, support services, online teaching guidelines and quality assurance.
System officials say there are more than 900,000 Missouri residents between the ages of 25 and 64 who have some college experience but no degree. They hope Missouri Online will help the system tap into this demographic.
"Online and digital education is an increasingly competitive space,” a system spokesperson told Higher Ed Dive in an email Wednesday. “As part of the strategic investment we surveyed the current landscape and are working to provide programs, services, and supports that meet the needs of an increasingly agile workforce.” That includes microcredentials that can be stacked into degrees.
But the system isn't the only online player in the state. The all-online Western Governors University enrolled more than 3,600 students in Missouri in the fall of 2019, according to data from NC-SARA, an industry group that oversees distance learning across state lines. Southern New Hampshire University had around 1,500 Missouri residents.
Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire each enroll well over 100,000 students nationwide. The Missouri system, meanwhile, enrolls just under 7,000 students full-time in its online programs. It hopes to grow that number to 10,000 students. Around 53,000 students in the system have taken at least one online course, according to the spokesperson — a figure that includes students who took classes online because of the pandemic.
Missouri will need more than a portal to compete, said Phil Hill, a partner with the ed tech consulting firm MindWires. Enrollment at the state's public two- and four-year colleges has been on a downward slide over the last decade, according to state data.
"I hope this is step one in investing in online as opposed to a ... 'if we build a portal they will come' mentality," Hill said.
He's skeptical the system will benefit much, for example, from using the portal to have students from one institution take classes online at another, pointing out that campus-based students entering the portal are told they must go through a "cross-enrollment process" to do so. And deploying it to increase online-only enrollment demands an investment in marketing and lead-generation. "There's just a lot more work to be done," Hill said.
The Missouri system has some of that in mind. A spokesperson said "some or all" of its marketing and recruiting efforts for the online programs will be centralized. It is also looking to centralize some services "that will help with scale and volume for the campuses," including student coaching, and it is providing help with academic tools, the spokesperson said.
Additionally, all four campuses use the same online learning platform, Canvas. And the system is working out how to enable students to more easily combine courses from different institutions on the platform.
Other public institutions and systems attempting to reach more adult learners have focused on creating separate entities to offer virtual programs. That approach is a more effective way to scale, said Trace Urdan, managing director at investment bank and consulting firm Tyton Partners.
The University of Massachusetts, for instance, is partnering with an online college to grow its online offerings. The University of Arizona and Purdue University each acquired a for-profit online college that they turned into an online arm — decisions that have also proven contentious.
The Missouri system considered that kind of centralized approach as part of its original research, its spokesperson said.
Urdan views Missouri's portal as a safer choice, noting that power within public systems tends to be distributed among the institutions, making it a challenge for the system to centralize online offerings on its own.
"The reality is that this kind of approach is just much more feasible politically," Urdan said.
Top non-Missouri-based enrollers of online students, fall 2019
|Missouri enrollment||Total enrollment|
|Western Governors University||3,644||135,443|
|Southern New Hampshire University||1,509||105,199|
|University of Phoenix||1,272||93,871|
|Grand Canyon University||806||74,903|