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Coursera and the uncertain future of higher education

Coursera and the uncertain future of higher education


Arthur Levine
October 25, 2021
The future of higher education is being led by a publicly traded company in California that is growing like gangbusters. Its online platform has a portfolio of thousands of courses from the world’s leading universities, corporations, and nonprofits.
Coursera, which since the spring has been listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is valued at 7 billion dollars and seems to be making all the right moves.
While college and university enrollments have been declining during the pandemic, Coursera’s enrollment rose from 53 million to 78 million students this spring—an increase greater than total U.S. higher education enrollment.
In recent months, leaders of the online learning platform began making deals with colleges to further encourage their growth.  As institutions across the country were going online and closing their campuses, Coursera began offering courses on the Coronavirus and gave pandemic-impacted colleges and their students free access to courses. Within a month, institutions around the globe were tapping into its programs and, a month later, the company unveiled CourseMatch, which automatically matches Coursera courses to their on-campus versions across the globe.
Coursera is blurring the lines between itself and institutions with an inducement that is hard to ignore. The implications for the future of college are profound.
Coursera is only the tip of the iceberg of an explosion of non-collegiate higher education providers. They range from libraries and museums to media companies and software makers, not to mention a burgeoning number of online providers just like Coursera. Microsoft and Google are both offering more than 75 certificate programs. The American Museum of Natural History has its own graduate school, which offers a Ph.D. in comparative biology and a Master of Arts degree in teaching. It also provides six-week online courses on subjects such as the solar system, evolution, climate change, and water, with an extra fee for obtaining graduate credit.
These players will become increasingly competitive with higher education, catering to the part-time, older, and adult learners who are increasingly important to the economy and are underserved by higher education. In the future, owing to automation, workforce specialization, and COVID unemployment, there will be a ballooning number of students coming to higher education for short, nondegree programs for the purpose of gaining new skills to increase their earnings or change fields throughout their lives.
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