Schools plan new online degrees to help offset graduate enrollment drops

Media Credit: Elise Apelian | Senior Staff Photographer
Provost Steve Lerman presides over the Faculty Senate meeting Friday. He said last week the University would rely partially on online programs to offset graduate enrollment drops in the long term.

As administrators project a decline in graduate student enrollment across GW for the second straight year, they will urge departments to capitalize on online programs to fuel future growth.

The number of graduate students will dip about 2 percent as more students decide to enter the workforce instead of trying to earn extra degrees, Provost Steven Lerman said last week. In the short term, the decline has put pressure on deans across colleges to shed excess costs over the past few weeks, Lerman said.

But the blow to GW’s bottom line, which is mostly dependent on student tuition, has been partially offset by the continued growth of online programs in the nursing and public health schools. Those schools have lifted enrollment by 514 students in the last year.

“What we have to look at is what areas could we replicate aspects of that model because its been observed to be successful,” Lerman said Friday. “This is a project that’s ongoing and you can’t create online programs in a week, so this will be something to look at in our future.”

A year-old online master’s program in the Milken Institute School of Public Health, created in a partnership with the education company 2U, enrolled five times more students this year than administrators initially anticipated. The growth of the online public health degree program has helped balance out this year’s incoming class that had about 200 fewer graduate students across GW.

Next year, the school is anticipating an additional 180 students to enroll in that degree.

The public health school will also launched a hybrid online degree this fall, a master’s in health administration, which was also created with 2U.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Sam Hardgrove
Public health school dean Lynn Goldman has overseen strong growth in a year-old online program.

Creating online courses can have high unanticipated costs though, which officials realized after the GW School of Business spent an extra $13 million last year, mostly on online and executive education programs. Despite the heavy investment, the school’s online programs have continually dropped in rankings, and this year fell 20 spots this year to No. 64 in U.S. News & World Report rankings.

About 2,100 graduate students enrolled exclusively in online courses in 2012, according to the latest data from the Department of Education, making up about 14 percent of total graduate student enrollment.

The School of Nursing has weathered the GW-wide enrollment decline because most of its students are in online programs. Dean Jean Johnson said more students are attracted to GW’s online nursing programs because professors and administrators in the school try to stay ahead of competitors by updating courses each semester.

“We have to stay on the cutting edge,” Johnson said. “We have to continually look at new ways of teaching, new technologies that are emerging, those kinds of things. We have to keep on the forefront of what’s available and experiment.”

Recently, Johnson said professors have focused on including how cultural ideologies overlap with specific diseases to add depth to courses. The school’s online programs were ranked No. 4 for graduate online nursing programs this year by U.S. News & World Report.

The University has created new online degrees to fund other programs since the Innovation Task Force launched in 2009, planning three online programs to help create funds for the University to invest in other areas. GW also tapped former law dean Paul Schiff Berman to serve as the first vice provost for online education and academic innovation last year.

Departments in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences have already been preparing their budgets for cuts due to under-enrollment, but officials have not yet announced formal plans.

Both the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and the Graduate School of Political Management have seen enrollment declines over the last two years, and have announced new doctoral or master’s programs to attract new students.

When graduate schools face smaller classes, universities will reconsider programs’ popularity and could phase out some areas, said Eric Bettinger, an associate professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

“A drop in enrollment makes us think about what kinds of programs students really value,” he said. “It pushes the institution to think more carefully, to think if options are appropriate for jobs available.”

-Mary Ellen McIntire and Christie Carpenter contributed reporting.

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