The Rise of the Mega-University

Paul J. LeBlanc remembers the day, about a decade ago, when a public research university in New England announced that it was starting an online M.B.A. Southern New Hampshire University, where LeBlanc is president, had just rolled out its own ambitious online program and started its rise from undistinguished private institution with a few thousand students to today’s online-education juggernaut with more than 92,000 undergraduates enrolled.

LeBlanc found the prospect of such an august competitor bracing — until he heard a radio ad touting the new program. The ad suggested that those interested in the program come to an open house.

“You have an online program, but people have to go to your campus to get information and register?” he asks, still sounding incredulous. And, sure enough, “They’ve never been competition.”

At a time when many colleges are struggling with shrinking enrollment and tighter budgets, Southern New Hampshire is thriving on a grand scale, and it’s not alone. Liberty, Grand Canyon, and Western Governors Universities, along with a few other nonprofit institutions, have built huge online enrollments and national brands in recent years by subverting many of traditional higher education’s hallmarks. Western Governors has 88,585 undergraduates, according to U.S. Education Department data, more than the top 14 universities in the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings combined.

While some so-called mega-universities have physical campuses, they’ve focused intensely on building online programs. They’ve emphasized recruiting working adults over fresh high-school graduates. They’ve embraced competency-based education, in which students earn credits from life experiences and from demonstrating proficiency in a subject. They market widely and vigorously, and lean into, rather than recoil from, some other common corporate practices and philosophies.

These universities have clearly found a new way to play the game that many colleges are losing. With no end to their expansion in sight, they could one day lay claim to a significant share of the nation’s new college students. Much as Amazon and Walmart now stand as the templates for the retail business, mega-universities in many ways reflect a shift in what Americans seek in a college degree: something practical, convenient, and inexpensive. Traditional institutions can certainly learn from these disruptors. And the more they do, for better or worse, the more these mega-universities may change the shape and purpose of higher education.

To continue reading, please visit: