The University of Massachusetts system is launching “UMass Global” — a new online college focused solely on adult learners — whose long-term, strategic goals President Marty Meehan listed two years ago in his annual address.
“Addressing the workforce skills gap. Meeting employer demand. Improving economic mobility for Massachusetts residents. And ensuring that the University of Massachusetts continues to thrive for generations to come,” Meehan said.
But Meehan’s move is a bit of a gambit.
This month, UMass isbringing back tens of thousands of students to its five campuses for in-person classes. At the same time, UMass is expanding its online footprint in an increasingly crowded marketplace for college courses. One of the country’s biggest players is just across the border to the north.
Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester enrolls about 160,000 students — more than 10,000 of them from Massachusetts. The school airs ads all over Boston television. Meehan even referred to SNHU in his 2019 speech.
“Right here in our Commonwealth, out-of-state institutions without our academic reputation for excellence are enrolling adult learners in Massachusetts in the types of programs we seek to offer,” he said.
So UMass announced this month that it was acquiring Brandman University, a private nonprofit school in California that serves more than 23,000 students online and in-person, primarily on the West Coast. Currently, only 33 of those students are from Massachusetts.
Under the deal, UMass Global will pay more than $130 million over the next decade to Chapman University, which created Brandman to serve military service members back in the 1950s.
Will this investment pay off? Researchers suggest it will be an uphill climb.
“UMass, with their acquisition of Brandman, is entering what is a very mature online learning landscape that looks very different from ten years prior, where it was a little bit of the Wild West,” said Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, where he writes about the future of education and online learning.
In addition to Southern New Hampshire, Horn points to other well-established players with strong track records and large enrollments. From Purdue University, which purchased Kaplan University in 2017, to the University of Arizona, which acquired Ashford University last year, several public institutions already have big online footprints.
“UMass is now entering that landscape as another of these public entities, looking to make a big splash in the online world as a state institution,” he said.
Acquiring Brandman, which has experience providing high-quality, competency-based teaching and learning for thousands of students, should give UMass a better chance, according to Horn.
“That brings UMass online up the experience curve very rapidly and gives them a way to get into this market,” he said. “Not from ground zero, but from maybe 50 yards into the 100-yard dash.”
UMass says it’s banking on its brand as the state’s flagship public university to compete with online giants like Southern New Hampshire.
“Brand is helpful, but it doesn’t win the day,” said Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire's president, who earned his doctorate at UMass Amherst.
“As a proud alum of UMass, I think it has a wonderful brand but I think all of the flagship universities have tended to overstate their brand traction,” he said. “If you live in Michigan, you love the University of Michigan and adore that brand. I don’t know if it matters a whole lot if you live in Louisiana.”
Michael Horn with the Clayton Christensen Institute agrees. He says the pandemic has moved a lot of people to online learning who otherwise would not have considered it, but as they migrate into the cloud, they want schools that know how to navigate this space well.
“[Students] don’t want this slapdash job that they saw from other institutions, and so Southern New Hampshire, I think, is a trusted regional brand that does put UMass at perhaps not at a sizeable disadvantage because the pie is pretty large to serve individuals, but with some ground to make up,” he said.
UMass administrators dismiss the idea that they are playing catch-up online.
“I don’t think we’re playing catch-up, but we’re adding strings to our bow,” said Katherine Newman, the UMass system’s chancellor for academic programs.
“It’s been quite a while since UMass has been in this part of higher education,” she said. “But we were not specifically dedicated to the working adult market in higher education.”
Today, the public university already has 6,000 fully online students at UMass Online. While most of Brandman University’s current students live in California and Washington state, Newman says the re-branded UMass Global will target students at home in the state and everywhere.
“We do expect a larger proportion to come from the Northeast broadly, Massachusetts specifically,” Newman said. “But we're looking to serve everybody in between in the so-called flyover country.”
Newman, though, declined to spell out a target for total enrollment.
“The growth that we anticipate is going to be substantial but it will never outstrip the quality,” she said.
With more than 30 million people in the US who began working on a college degree but didn’t complete it, UMass administrators say the marketplace for adult learners is big enough for UMass Global — and its many competitors.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the source of the payments to be made to Chapman University. UMass Global, not the UMass system, will make them out of its future revenue.
GBH’s Diane Adame contributed to this report.