For decades, disproportionate attention has been given to a few of America’s most selective colleges and universities. Less than half a percent of undergraduate students in the United States attend an Ivy League institution. Yet countless news stories and attention focus on these and other elite institutions. Higher education news this week was dominated by news that one of the richest universities in the world just got $1.1 billion richer. But so long as these elites can continue to enjoy much of the “college” spirit, the future is largely in the hands of a new class of elite universities – those who know the fastest growing and most student-centric institutions. . And the “piano duel” impact of having two types of elite universities will make higher education better for everyone.
The growth of institutions such as Western Governor’s University (WGU), Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), Arizona State University (ASU), and a handful of others has created a new elite in higher education. They are part of the elite in that they serve rather than those they reject. It’s been a famous refrain from ASU President Michael Crow for years. And it’s the driving principle that has propelled ASU to be named America’s Most Innovative University for 7 consecutive years. WGU and SNHU currently enroll over 135,000 students each, making them the largest universities in the country. WGU was founded just 25 years ago and SNHU (its current online form) was launched just 27 years ago. At their current rate of annual graduates, WGU’s alumni base will surpass the largest in the United States (Ohio State University) in approximately 5 years – meaning WGU will produce more graduates in 30 years than the State of Ohio in over 150.
At a time when degree-seeking enrollment in American higher education has been declining for more than a decade, the role these elite new universities are playing is quite profound. A recent analysis, for example, shows that without the growth of just three institutions (WGU, SNHU, and Liberty), enrollment at private, nonprofit universities nationwide would have declined by 1.1% between 2012 and 2020. instead of increasing by 5.5%. As the United States seeks to boost college completion rates – especially for underserved students – the “new elites” are the model for the future. That doesn’t make “traditional elites” obsolete, of course. They will continue to enjoy huge pools of applicants and play leading roles in educating some of the world’s brightest students – but, let’s be honest, especially the world’s brightest, rich students (among “Ivy Plus” colleges, more students come from the top 1% of the income distribution than from the bottom 50%).
In the coming decade, there will be a considerable shift in power. The new elites will have the most influence over all of higher education, including the traditional elites themselves. And it will be for a good reason and a tremendous opportunity. Why are the new elites growing exponentially at a time when the rest of higher education is in decline? A simple answer: an obsessive focus on the student. The new elites are institutions that have worked diligently and tirelessly to understand the needs of learners – and especially those traditionally underserved. The new elites focused on access, affordability, flexibility, and removing all forms of barriers in a learner’s path. Is it any surprise that the president of WGU is a former Amazon executive – perhaps the most customer-centric company in the world? (But don’t worry, there’s plenty of hope for liberal arts circles, too; SNHU’s president was an English teacher.)
Why can’t a university be both elite and accessible – as I have argued in the past? What would a traditional elite university of one million students look like? Can large scale also contribute to high quality? What does it mean to be truly student-centred as a university? These are the questions that will drive board conversations across the country – driven by the example of the new elites. At a time when confidence in higher education has waned for years, the new class of elite universities will help bring desperately needed renewed optimism among Americans.