May 23, 2024


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Colleges Are Losing Students. Is That A Growth Opportunity For Coursera?


These days, colleges are finding it hard to keep students coming through their doors. In what’s been described as the largest decline in a half-century, colleges have seen two-year enrollment losses of 5.1 percent or about 938,000 students, according to prominent estimates, which researchers describe as “frightening.”

For university leaders, that means a fight to keep students. And part of that, some university leaders say, is figuring out how they can prove to students that investing in a degree will lead to actual employment, especially for universities that might have a hard time differentiating themselves with prestige.

To Coursera, the online learning platform and edtech “unicorn” that went public last year, this may represent an opportunity to serve as an institutional bridge for some of these universities in the struggle to stop the bleeding. The company’s latest attempt, launched today, is its “Career Academy for Institutions,” a program that stitches together the company’s existing career certificates with some new offerings.

The academy is intended to build on Coursera’s business offerings by adding entry-level certificates from Meta—the company formerly known as Facebook—and IBM, as well as altering the user experience for its certificates to better show how they lead to jobs. It’s being marketed to universities, businesses and governments as a way to help connect people to in-demand digital jobs and skills.

Critics see the changes as primarily repackaging, but executives for Coursera argue that the Career Academy offering may be a lifeline for universities trying to sell themselves to students in an increasingly competitive market. It’s meant to connect universities to industry demands and to make the user experience of earning a certificate “less intimidating” in a bid to help universities keep student enrollment up, executives for Coursera say.

Universities recognize there’s a need for reskilling and upskilling, says Scott Shireman, global head of Coursera for Campus. But he contends that they often don’t have connections to the industry to really understand what employers are looking for when making hiring decisions. And students are increasingly less interested in flashy athletic facilities or lounges and more interested in knowing they’ll get a job, he adds.

Universities in the Pilot

It’s part of a pilot that will run for six months, but which some university leaders have already embraced.

The credentials are a nice “bolt-on” to a degree, an addition that can help students stand out once they’ve graduated, says Adam Fein, vice president for digital strategy and innovation at the University of North Texas, a public university that was a part of Coursera’s pilot program. The university, Fein notes, already accepts the certificates for credit towards its bachelor’s completion program on Coursera.

“What I’m really interested in is giving students options, and this is a fairly low-cost way for them to get some industry credentials that are recognized along with the tried and true university credential,” Fein says.

Others go a little further, enthusiastically saying that the model will alter university teaching.

“In the future, I see Career Academy as replacing the textbook, allowing staff and faculty to use Career Academy and its certificates in the same manner that they once used textbooks,” says Mark Rosenbaum, dean of the College of Business at Hawai’i Pacific University, a private university in Honolulu and Kāneʻohe.

The big picture, Rosenbaum says, is that the certificates will help ensure meaningful employment for the university’s students post-graduation, one of his major concerns.

That will be particularly useful for international students, he adds, who may be returning to countries where his university’s brand isn’t very recognizable, but where a company like Google’s certainly is.

Answering the ‘So What?’

Entry-level industry certificates are receiving a lot of attention these days.

Last year marked the first time that the majority of new courses launched by Coursera weren’t from universities, according to analysis by Dhawal Shah, founder of the MOOC discovery platform Class Central.

Shah, though, sees this week’s announcement as more marketing than substance. And edX, a competitor to Coursera purchased by 2U last year, has offered micro-credentialing programs for years. In fact, both companies have long been interested in upskilling and reskilling, analysts say.

But some observers say a subtle change may be going on here.

What’s new is trying to solidify institutions—including universities—as a market for upskilling material in a systematic way, says Richard Garrett, chief research officer for the research and advisory firm Eduventures. That may represent an untapped growth opportunity for Coursera, he adds.

The company’s latest quarterly results showed a much faster enterprise growth rate than consumer growth rate. There may be an emerging story here that the real feature of these platforms is more about connecting to businesses, universities and governments than to individual learners.

“But it’s obviously antithetical to the way universities tend to do things,” he says.

He thinks the move has a certain power. But Garrett predicts that universities that are aspiring to be more top-tier will be reluctant to join this program, while schools that accept being a regional player will feel less anxiety about it.


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