Online Education Impacts Campuses – 2017

Equivalent of 500,000 undergrads are only online

Is traditional undergraduate campus building space being made less necessary by online education? Yes.

The growth of online education is depressing the need for the brick and mortar of campuses just like online sales are reducing the need for retail space. In fall 2015 the scale of the undergraduate impact was      12 Arizona States or          52 Harvards.


So far more than 23 million square feet of traditional campus space has been obviated by online education. This space is existing and unbuilt.

  • Existing – excess space that is no longer needed; and
  • Unbuilt – space that need not be built.

Methodology – Where do these numbers come from? A link to the details of my methodology and calculations is here. The record of online enrollment was compiled by the US Department of Education and is accessible on the IPEDS site.

In Fall 2015, more than 500,000 full-time equivalent students were not occupying classrooms in any conventional sense. This number is only undergraduate students enrolled at traditional 4-year institutions, both public and private not-for-profit. Graduate students or those enrolled in for-profit institutions are not included. The rate of growth has been 10% per year since 2013.

Projecting brick and mortar needs from enrollments has been a fundamental component of campus planning. The number of traditional undergraduate students was related to the required number of classroom seats, beds in residence halls or seats in the library. This kind of math has been intrinsic to justifying new buildings and the scale of the physical campus as the site of face-to-face higher education. It is time to take another look.

The consequences of the digital transformation of higher education have become measurable and observable. For some colleges the change will allow expanding enrollments within an existing campus. For others, it will mean eliminating obsolete buildings without need for replacement. Both of these approaches can be a benefit. Failing to recognize these opportunities will be a cost.

Twenty years ago, Peter Drucker saw the rise of digital transformation and predicted the demise of higher education, as we had known it.

Thirty years from now big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change since we first got the printed book.

Peter Drucker – I got my degree through E-mail – Forbes (June 16,1997)

The rate of change has been slower and less dramatic than Drucker hypothesized. Still, maintaining a business as usual approach is unwise. It is time to test all of the assumptions and adjust the algorithms. Changing the brick and mortar trajectory of a campus takes about a decade. The equivalent of more than half a million full-time undergrads have already moved to the digital domain.  More will follow.

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One thought on “Online Education Impacts Campuses – 2017

  1. I have a problem with Drucker’s projection mostly because, for the most part, the big university campuses are still getting bigger and some are doing so while holding tuition constant in an attempt to ensure affordability. On the other hand, small colleges seem to be failing at a faster rate, as many as 15 in 2017 according to Moody’s Investor Service. Small colleges are dependent on tuition and unable to discount enough to attract students and continue to pay for facilities that are no longer needed due to on-line education.

    Colleges will have to adapt, if they haven’t already, by blending on-line education with on-site education in ways the support or enhance learning. Enhanced learning increases the value of the tuition dollar which should be the objective. This also means fewer large lecture halls and even tablet arm chair classrooms in exchange for “interaction spaces” where students work in teams (the individual work having already occurred via on-line or outside the classroom).

    Regardless, change is coming! The changes will increase sustainability of both the college industry and the environment.

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