Are mega-universities the future?

How big will campuses get? A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article argues that what it calls mega-universities are a trend to watch.

Lee Gardner defines such academic behemoths in terms of size.  He cites enrollment numbers upwards of 80,000.  Western Governors enrolls more than 91,000, according to Wikipedia. Liberty University has over 100,000 students.  That’s beyond most colleges and universities, which max out around 50-60,000 students (one source; Wikipedia).

WGUFlagMega-universities are not defined just by quantity.  Megas differ in some qualities, including emphases on online learning, adult learners, and a business attitude:

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.

Among those adults, these megas have a particular target: “the more than 30 million Americans who have some college credit but who never graduated.”  They also seem to have a precise mission: providing “‘all around the most inexpensive education and certification that will get me a job,’ says Susan Grajek, vice president for communities and research at Educause” (Grajek was also a fine Future Trends Forum guest).

Gardner positions the megas as one strategic response to demographic trends:

While community colleges have long served students of all ages, traditional four-year colleges’ “business model is being blown up and, demographically, they’ve seen a decline of traditional-age students, so there’s this wondrous new discovery of the adult learner,” [Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University] says.

And yet the current crop of megas may well own the marketplace.  Most started in the 1990s or soon after, and so reaped first mover advantages.  Gardner’s interviewees think the field is full, and that it will be difficult for anyone else to enter the megasphere.  He cites Michael B. Horn (another fine Forum guest) as saying “there’s probably only a select number that can meaningfully enter the space.”

What can we make of this?  What can megas tell us about education’s future?

On the face of it, mega-universities obviously exist.  They enroll students and employ both staff and faculty.  They have clearly found an educational market to satisfy, pointing one way forward for American higher ed as demographic trends see our younger population dwindle and their elders grow.

They must be realizing some economy of scale.  The article mentions rising costs, but surely there are benefits at a per-unit level.  Compare organizing a university for 90,000 students to a college teaching and supporting 2% of the number.  Some American campuses practice small class sizes, intensive student support, and high touch service – and it’s costly to do so.  The successes of the megas are further evidence for the possibility that small colleges will decline, while larger units persist.  Indeed, the multi-unit nature of WGU and others can be seen as pointing the way to mergers.

Missing from this conversation is the presence of potential megauniversities in state systems.  The Houston Community College ecosystem – I think the largest community college system in America – includes twenty-three campuses and 69,000 students.  Twenty-four Penn State campuses serve 97-99,000 students. The University of North Carolina system teaches almost 229,000 students across 17 campuses. Think of the number of students enrolled in all sixty-four SUNY units: more than 600,000 students, or more than half a million!  Could any of these become something like a mega-university?

SUNY provides a cautionary tale here.  Chancellor Nancy Zimpher coined, used, or reinvented the term “systemness” as a way of getting those 64 colleges and universities to think more collectively, especially from the administrative cost savings angle, which could have led to more resources directed towards teaching.  The opening plan was quite ambitious, including as well standardized IT across the system.   OpenSUNY counts as a success story, I think. There is now a series of inter-campus services and functions. Yet it seems that while campuses accepted some shared services, they resisted other forms of collaboration, especially on the administrative end.  It seems that many campuses often saw local conditions as more important than SUNY-wide ones.  I can’t find evidence of successful inter-campus teaching or shared curricula. By 2017 Zimpher’s tenure concluded with moving towards a shared data and improvement center.  Is SUNY a megauniversity?  Not quite, but Zimpher’s vision pointed in that direction.  Its at best uneven realization suggests state systems will face serious challenges in trying to scale up to something like WGU or Southern New Hampshire.

In the meantime those megas are thriving.  How much will they influence the rest of academia?

(WGU flag photo from Wikipedia)

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12 Responses to Are mega-universities the future?

  1. Some adults are concerned with their learning. They will figure out how their many learning experiences will support their careers.

  2. Hi Bryan: If I’m not mistaken, the largest community college system is Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana with 200,000 students.

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Brian, these mega-universities have loads of problems even as they steal students away from other schools. Check out sites for Liberty University and University of Phoenix for example. Western Governors has also been exposed recently for its lack of instruction.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      How do they steal students from other schools?

      • Cynthia Jo says:

        They steal students based on cost factors. I have two friends who started grad school “with” me and for whom cost was the driving factor. My cost of education was far higher than either of theirs, one at Univ. of Phoenix and one at WGU. Throughout our classes, they had minimal requirements, less instructor interaction, and less investment in their success by their school of choice. After my graduation, they both stated I received an education and they received diplomas. The UOP student received an MBA and still calls with “how to” questions. The WGU student never finished because class offerings were not as advertised. The megas look to put butts in seats as cheaply as possible and if you fail or drop they’ll find another student to take your place.

  4. Pingback: Again, some links about MOOCs, OPMs, and Online Ed – More Than A Moment

  5. Dahn Shaulis says:


    My 2021 piece on Mega-universities, aka “Robocolleges,” and the numbers are frightening.

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