How to liberate higher education

U.S.-based institutions must meet the increasing demand as online coursework continues to proliferate, and more international students seek a university education


Declining enrollments. Increasing competition for students. Sunsetting education models. The doom-and-gloom headlines on higher education pervade mainstream media.

However, an undercurrent of optimism exists as many institutions of higher education evolve to meet these 21st century challenges. As advisors in the space, we’re quite optimistic, as we see university presidents, provosts and trustees employing bold strategies to ensure the viability (and success) of their institutions.

There is one truth that cuts through these changes and uncertainties: around the world, there is an ever-increasing hunger for Western-style post-secondary education, and through online coursework and transnational education, there are increased opportunities to connect students to the educational experiences they seek.

Let’s look at two ways U.S. post-secondary institutions are having an impact around the world.

Watch: Parthenon Partner and Education Practice Co-Head Karan Khemka participated on a panel at the 2014 ASU+GSV Education Innovation Summit.

(Next page: How American institutions are leading in online education)

American institutions are leading the way in online education, as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have legitimized the concept of geo-agnostic coursework. We’re seeing differing variations on the approaches to online learning, such as MOOCs – from online courses that have very little faculty-student interaction to models where online materials enhance a traditional, classroom-based course.

Many of the world’s leading academic institutions have launched some type of online/distance learning component. Globally, 7.1 million students took some type of online course in 2013. And 33.5 percent of higher education students reported taking at least one online course – an all-time high.

The collective experience that hundreds and hundreds of universities are gaining, and the new models and modalities developed, allow the U.S. to continue to lead in reaching students around the world.

We’re already seeing huge impacts in other countries, however. In Argentina, for example, online education and distance learning is quickly following the lead of the United States, where such courses were originally developed to meet the needs of working professionals who didn’t have the time to attend traditional college classes.

Conversely, in Brazil, many institutions are embracing digital coursework as a way to lower the cost of education, opening doors for student who may not have the economic ability to attend a traditional university program.

And it is in this international space where we will see the opportunities for Western-style post-secondary education. For 60 years, international students had a strong desire to come to the United States to attend college. Now as the global economy evolves, the number of students who can afford higher education is increasing rapidly.

What was once the province of a small sliver of societies is now available to a growing global middle class. And U.S. universities are expanding. 52 U.S. universities operate 82 campuses in 37 countries. By comparison, for all the world’s universities only 16 such campus existed in 1996.

Yet many of those students are unable to physically attend college here, due to a number of factors including tight restrictions on visas in the U.S. In addition to online coursework, nations such as Australia, New Zealand and Germany have stepped into that void, offering a Western-style educational experience at brick-and-mortar institutions and attracting many of these international students.

Just as online education can break down barriers relating to access, transnational education can help universities fulfill their mission of creating globally-educated students. It can also help reduce friction between nations by breeding familiarity and can in some cases enhance the financial viability of the institution by reaching new student markets.

In fact, the second largest set of MOOC users after the United States are in India. Indian MOOC users are skewed more towards 18-24 age group than users in the United States and spend more time on MOOC websites than users in the U.S. Several American higher education institutions that previously had no visibility in the emerging world can now use MOOCs and other technology to build their brands and engage students globally.

We continue to believe that education can be the great American export of the 21st century. However, U.S.-based institutions must rise to meet the increasing demand as online coursework continues to proliferate, and more international students seek a university education. If such institutions are to remain the vanguard of higher education, it’s time to stop asking if and start asking when.

Robert Lytle and Karan Khemka are Co-Heads and Partners in the Education Practice at The Parthenon Group