There's no question that online education is transforming the college experience. This transformation is most visible in the steadily increasing number of students enrolling online. The new and outsized ways in which universities offer online learning also shows how some schools are actively shaping the future of online education.

Students considering online learning now have a wide range of options to choose from, including what has become known as the "mega-university." This term refers to universities like Southern New Hampshire, Liberty, Grand Canyon, and Western Governors, all of which boast massive online enrollments.

A focus on enrollment growth at mega-universities has led some academics to question their value as compared to a traditional on-campus education. Here, I explore some of these issues in detail and address some of the factors students should consider when selecting an online program.

What Is a Mega-University?

There is no industrywide definition of mega-university, but several sources have shared descriptions based on enrollment. These schools usually have at least 80,000 students and sometimes more. While this large enrollment model isn't a new concept internationally — where large, online universities have found considerable success — it is now found in the United States at a growing number of institutions.

Education futurist Bryan Alexander points out that "mega-universities are not defined just by quantity." Large enrollment numbers are a key characteristic, but the model also includes a focus on adult learners, who are often working full time, and incorporates a business-focused approach that helps an institution scale up its online offerings.

In the past, it was mainly the for-profit universities (e.g., the University of Phoenix) that fit this description, but the environment is changing. [Today] you'll find that nonprofit universities, large traditional schools, and state school systems are investing heavily in the development of online programs with goals of their own 'mega' enrollments.

These institutions may also develop programs that build off of students' prior learning, which could be previously earned college credit or an assessment of prior learning that is awarded college credit. This model is often driven by a focus on career preparation and advancement.

In the past, it was mainly the for-profit universities (e.g., the University of Phoenix) that fit this description, but the environment is changing. Now you'll find that nonprofit universities, large traditional schools, and state school systems are investing heavily in the development of online programs with goals of their own "mega" enrollments. Below are just a few examples of schools implementing strategies for continued growth.


Arizona State University

Arizona State University is a public institution currently enrolling online students in more than 200 degree programs. A partnership with Starbucks has led to 3,000 employees earning bachelor’s degrees in the past five years with a goal of 25,000 by 2025.


Southern New Hampshire University

Southern New Hampshire University, a private nonprofit institution, currently enrolls more than 90,000 students in its online programs. A focus on marketing is designed to help reach an enrollment goal of 300,000 students by 2023.


Western Governors University

Students at Western Governors University (WGU), another private nonprofit, experience competency-based learning, in which they “progress through courses as soon as they’ve mastered the material.”


The State University of New York

The State University of New York (SUNY), with more than 400,000 students, might also be considered a mega-university with 64 campuses and 500 online programs.


Purdue University Global

In 2018, Purdue University acquired Kaplan University to establish Purdue University Global, now offering more than 175 online programs to almost 30,000 students.


Online Program Management (OPM) providers

Online Program Management (OPM) providers, currently used by more than 300 schools, are usually external contractors that offer a wide range of services related to developing and administering online programs — from recruiting and marketing to course design and curriculum development.


Choosing an Online Program

Both mega-universities and traditional programs benefit from the work being done industrywide to improve learning environments and foster student success. Innovations in online education can result in a learning experience and environment that are as rewarding as a traditional campus, but the experience will be different. The examples of integrating innovative technologies and practices to better serve larger student populations are growing.

Innovative Technologies and Practices in Online Education

Specific tools can be implemented with goals related to improving student learning achievement. As one example, the University of South Florida (USF) has adopted predictive analysis tools to better serve a growing number of students with personalized assistance. USF, a school with a total enrollment of more than 50,000, was able to raise the first-year student retention rate to 91% and the six-year graduation rate to 73% by tracking 300 variables, such as how often students log in to their courses, and then working with advisors to provide services to at-risk students.

The University of Central Florida, with more than 60,000 students, has been a leader in the development of blended learning, a model in which students interact with course materials, classmates, and professors through both an online learning environment (i.e., learning management system) and in-person classrooms, reducing the in-person time usually found in traditional programs. This model incorporates the flexibility and convenience of online learning with the traditional college schedule.

The social and student life aspects of the traditional college experience have been more difficult to capture in online learning. This is changing, however, with the growing number of ways online students can get involved through student clubs and organizations.

Artificial intelligence is making its way to higher education in a variety of ways. Academically, these tools may be used to help institutions serve larger numbers of students. Bots, or chatbots, can respond to student questions around-the-clock. This kind of implementation is new but being explored in areas such as admissions, counseling, and study assistance (e.g., quizzing, flashcards, language learning), according to Inside Higher Ed. EdSurge also reports the University of Oklahoma's new use of library chatbots to answer frequently asked questions.

WGU's model includes providing a team of faculty roles that support the success of more than 100,000 online students. These roles include, of course, the primary instructor along with program mentors and evaluators, who are experts in their fields, working with students individually. A partnership with WGU Academy provides a starting point for students who need to prepare for college-level work. The academy structure includes assigned success coaches to work with students one-on-one.

The social and student life aspects of the traditional college experience have been more difficult to capture in online learning. This is changing, however, with the growing number of ways online students can get involved through student clubs and organizations. SHNU's students can pursue a variety of interests through an online community. ASU's Online Business Student Association is another example of how online students can connect outside of their classes. A recent article from the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration outlines the ways in which institutions are including online learners in virtual graduation ceremonies.

Measuring the Student Experience

It will be a challenge for prospective students to access information about things like OPM providers, mergers, and how courses and programs are developed by specific colleges and universities. But you can research what the experience will be like as you compare the options available in your field of interest across traditional and large-enrollment institutions.

The advantages and disadvantages of a particular program will be framed by your needs, preferences, and goals. What aspects of the experience matter to you? What will your online learning experience be like? Consider academics first by exploring multiple programs in your major to find out more about faculty qualifications and resources available, such as tutoring and libraries. But there's more to consider as you research what the experience of being a student will be like at different institutions, such as the following.

1. Class Size

Smaller student-to-teacher ratios are generally regarded as a good thing. They can foster easier connections between you and your classmates and instructors. This may mean a large class with one primary instructor and multiple teaching assistants.

2. Support and Student Life

Will you be able to access the services you anticipate needing either in your local area or virtually in your time zone? Think broadly to include things like tutoring and advising, as well as veterans centers, disability services, academic coaching, clubs, and more. Look for how services at your schools of interest might be tailored for specific student populations (e.g., online learners) and majors.

3. Connections With Employers

If you are entering an online program to reach career and employment goals, what roles do employers play in program development and hiring graduates? Connect with the career services office at your school of interest to find out how they work with students in your major to assist with career decision-making and the job search process.

4. Data on Student Outcomes

In an effort to provide more transparency, many schools are openly sharing some important data to help you set realistic expectations. Look for the following as you compare programs: retention and graduation rates, employment rates, student debt and loan repayment rates, and alumni satisfaction surveys.

5. Reviews, Referrals, and Recommendations

Gather input and insight from those who've gone before you. Let friends and family members know what you are planning and ask for advice. They may be able to share their experiences and connect you with others who have attended the institutions you are considering. Seek input from other potential stakeholders as well, such as your employer or employers in the field you want to enter.

Online Education Comes in Many Shapes and Sizes

Online education is rapidly growing with myriad certificates, badges, and degree programs available. The flexibility offered by these programs may help you adapt to the needs of a changing workforce, which increasingly requires upskilling and re-education to stay viable as a job candidate.

But when it comes to choosing between online education or a traditional on-campus program, or between an online mega-university or a smaller counterpart, it's helpful to consider some central questions: What are your goals? What do you want to get out of it? What do you want your college experience to be like?

Comparing online programs offered by mega-universities with those offered by more traditional institutions can be an "apples and oranges" situation in many ways. The focus, however, should be on learning achievement and student outcomes. Today's students should be prepared to consider both models when choosing an online program, and to do some careful comparison of the differences they will encounter as enrolled students.