Predictions 2024 | Insights for Online & Professional Education

During my tenure as president at the American Public University System (APUS), APUS was a member of UPCEA (University Professional Continuing Education Association). UPCEA now markets itself as the Online and Professional Education Association.

UPCEA recently issued a report titled Predictions 2024: Insights for Online & Professional Education. UPCEA believes that online and professional continuing education will play a major role in higher education’s transformation. The report provides 16 expert insights predicting some of the changes that higher education institutions should prepare for in 2024.

I have attempted to shorten the verbiage listed by UPCEA in its report. Where appropriate, I have added my comments in italics.

Prediction #1 More Campus Leaders Will Embrace Business Model Transformation

UPCEA CEO Bob Hansen predicts that as the base of residential students continues to erode at many institutions, campus leaders will look for managers who understand how to build units that serve today’s learners through a combination of online degree programs (undergraduate and graduate) and quality non-degree credentials.

To be successful, Mr. Hansen writes that campus leaders will have to choose between business model transformation and “legacy structures that do not translate to the complex marketplace of serving today’s learners.”

This is going to be a difficult task for most campuses. Campuses with eroding budgets and limited funds will find it difficult and expensive to transform their business models.

Prediction #2 – More Chief Online Learning Officers Assume Senior Leadership Roles

UPCEA SVP Julie Uranis predicts more Chief Online Learning Officers (COLOs) will take on more significant roles and projects at institutions. She adds that COLOs are unique in higher education. They are part academic, part entrepreneur, and part technologist. The typical provost career path does not adequately prepare leaders for digital transformation.

I agree. COLOs will take on more significant roles and projects at institutions that are large enough to afford them. Smaller institutions are going to have to find creative ways to insource resources like a COLO.

Prediction #3 – Increased Cross-Pollination of For-Profit and Non-Profit Online Financial Models

Kathleen Ives, UPCEA Chief Business Development Office & SVP of Member Engagement, predicts that there will be a blurring of lines by 2024 between the operational models of for-profit and non-profit education institutions, particularly in online learning.

Non-profit online higher education institutions’ adoption of ROI models to ensure sustainability and growth, will lead them to integrate strategies and best practices from the for-profit sector, known for its efficiency and scalability. This doesn’t mean the non-profits will shift their focus to profit, but they will target balancing mission with strategy and financial planning.

The convergence of operational models will create a more diverse and adaptive higher ed landscape.

woman educating her colleagues about generative ai

This prediction is nothing new. The largest non-profit online providers have adopted ROI models for years. How else would they have achieved online enrollments exceeding 60,000 students? In many cases, the incremental revenues from online operations at non-profit institutions are already subsidizing operating shortfalls from traditional campuses.

Prediction #4 – ‘Synthetic Human’ Technology Will Be Applied in Higher Ed

Ray Schroeder, UPCEA Senior Fellow, cites the machine learning technology embraced by a company called Fantasy allowing them to create ‘synthetic humans’ as a potential difference maker for asynchronous online course design.

Schroeder, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, has been a long-time leader in the online learning community. He believes the Fantasy technology would allow someone to create a class of 20, 30, 50, or more synthetic human students with differing views and opinions on topics covered in the class.

The ‘synthetic humans’ could challenge the critical thinking of the students in the self-paced online class. In some ways, this could be superior to traditional discussion and discussion boards in online classes. He predicts that this technology will be applied in higher education in 2024.

This prediction may be the most imaginative of the group. Knowing Ray, I think he has a great idea. The bigger question will be how many schools will have the resources to try to build a prototype class utilizing this software. Great idea. Could be limited to a few resource-laden institutions.

Prediction #5 – Online Learning’s Rise in Campus Stature Will Be a Blessing and a Curse

Aaron Brower, UPCEA Strategic Advisor and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, predicts that leadership in online learning will continue to increase in importance to campus administration. More deans and directors of professional and continuing education will be invited into the president’s cabinet.

Brower writes that other units and central administration will want to change business models to squeeze more dollars out of these units. Leaders of these online and professional education units will need to be clear in their advocacy for what works and for the resources needed to grow and thrive.

Mr. Brower’s warnings are appropriate. Leaders of these units will have to emphasize the importance of affordability and efficiency and avoid having costly overhead charges allocated in ways that destroy their competitive advantage.

Prediction #6 – Growth in Online Leads to Experimentation with Course Modalities

Derek Bruff, UPCEA Strategic Advisor, writes that traditional aged college students are increasingly looking for online and asynchronous class options. This leads to more students pursuing workforce educational opportunities.

Key to offering alternative modalities is faculty readiness. Recent data indicates a growing interest among faculty in teaching online. Thanks to COVID, many faculty have experience teaching online. Faculty readiness as well as student demand will lead many colleges to experiment with a variety of modalities in 2024. These experiments may help institutions stave off the loss of enrollments due to the demographic cliff.

Clearly, having more faculty with online teaching experience is a plus. The biggest challenge beyond this will be learning how to recruit online students and meet their needs as students while operating remotely.

Prediction #7 – Continuing and Professional Education Will Be the Entry Point for AI

Marie Cini, UPCEA Strategic Advisor and Provost at University of the People, writes that there will be a great deal of hyperbole about AI and its impact on higher ed. Much will be overstated, and much will be true. Results will vary by institution mission, size, and funding model.

Traditional institutions may not see the need for AI. Most institutions will face enrollment drops, inflationary pressures, and funding gaps. The first areas of adoption for AI will be operations, enrollment, and student services.

Adoption to improve learning will be slower, limited by the pace of faculty adoption. Non-university learning organizations will adopt AI quickly and create an enhanced learning experience. Many have done so already.

Continuing and professional education departments are the innovative fringe in universities and will take advantage of AI to increase business efficiency while improving the learning experience and student support. These departments will be the entrée for AI in academic affairs.

university style lecture for dual enrolled students
students in dual enrollment classroom

If I had a limited budget for faculty and staff professional education, I’d provide each of them with an OpenAI ChatGPT-4 subscription and encourage them to innovate. Finding ways to adopt AI quicker will make institutions more relevant to their student population, particularly those that serve working adults.

Prediction #8 – Centralization vs. Decentralization of Online and Micro-credentials Unit Structures Continues

Stacy Chiaramonte, UPCEA SVP of Strategy and Operations, writes that reorganizations, centralizing and decentralizing have occurred since prior to the pandemic. This will continue in 2024 due to the focus on generating tuition revenue from non-traditional sources.

Online and professional continuing education units have delivered strong results for universities seeking to grow graduate credit-bearing, non-credit, and microcredential revenue sources. Expect more centralization of administrative services with a decentralization of academics. This model is the best way to build a strong infrastructure to support post-traditional students.

Great prediction. The challenge will be getting multiple divisions of institutions to agree to centralize the services units.

Prediction #9 – Online and Professional Education Units Will Expansively Reshape Institutions

Susan Catron, UPCEA Strategic Advisor and Dean Emerita at UC Davis, predicts that 2024 will be the tipping point in reshaping institutions through intertwining online and professional education units with traditional campus operations. These units offer the agility that traditional operations lack.

Accelerating online learning forces competition in a hyper competitive market. The intersection between microcredentials and degrees is complicated and filled with roadblocks. The half-life for degrees is shrinking and the demand for life-long learning is increasing.

Online and professional continuing education are viewed as the third pillar in the teaching mission that provides the stickiness to achieve life-long learning relationships with alumni.  These organizations are received elevated status and recognition for their potential impact.

As usual, there are the have and have-not institutions. Not every institution offers an online and professional education unit. For institutions with these units, some will be so large, that integration is not necessary. Integration will only occur at institutions with budgetary constraints.

Prediction #10 – Online and Professional Continuing Education Will Help Fortify Institutions

Jay Halfond, UPCEA VP Institutional Planning, writes that Mega-institutions, flagships, and selective private colleges and universities will thrive at the expense of all other colleges and universities. More mergers, elimination of majors, and closures will occur. Students will be displaced and alumni will be upset. Universities committed to adult learners will be better off than those just now exploring new sources of students.

I agree that universities committed to adult learners will be better off than those that don’t. What this prediction does not say is that those institutions that are already committed to adult learners will get larger faster than institutions just entering the market will be able to attract students. You can’t forget the power of scalability of online learning. Look at the share of students at very large online institutions and how their numbers have increased since the pandemic. For smaller colleges and universities considering the elimination of low enrollment degree plans, options such as course-sharing platforms like those offered by Acadeum should be evaluated.

Prediction #11 – Major Employers Will Require Prompt Engineering and Related GenAI Skills in 2024.

Ray Schroeder, UPCEA Senior Fellow, writes that the implications for GenAI are transformative. The year-and- a-half since the launch of ChatGPT-3 has shown the advent of GenAI to be profound in higher ed. The real impact will be in the workplace that graduates will confront. Businesses will utilize GenAI to provide more services at lower cost and with fewer people.

AI technology will require reskilling for 75% of college graduates. Colleges and universities will have to assure that their graduates will hold the skills expected by employers. Colleges will have to create and implement use of e-portfolios, badges, and other relevant credentials for students to demonstrate their skills.

If you can’t beat them, join them. Build an online self-paced prompt engineering course for students or offer one through Coursera or edX. Do it as soon as possible. Add to the courses as faculty and students increase their familiarity with GenAI.

Prediction #12 – External Forces Will Impact Online and Professional Learning in a Variety of Ways

Amy Heitzman, UPCEA Deputy CEO & CLO, writes that global events will impact campuses in the years ahead, with specific implications for online and professional education.

Many states are pivoting from degree requirements for employment. This reduced standard will convert to skills-based hiring and broaden the candidate pool. If U.S. 2024 elections tilt Democratic, spending for state-based alternative credentials will increase.

Climate change Is affecting demand for skills-based learning. Enrollments in agricultural and environmental programs will increase for traditional and shorter-term credentials. Study-abroad, exchange, and global learning will be skills supported by U.S. governmental agencies.

Government funding of new education initiatives takes years to impact the sector. Institutions would be better off aligning themselves with their largest corporate or local government partners.

Prediction #13 – GenAI’s Limitations Will Trigger New Tech for Higher Ed

Derek Bruff, UPCEA Strategic Advisor, writes that genAI technologies have important limitations that will trigger development of new technologies for use in higher ed. For example, security and privacy policies of these tools are not adequate for those with sensitive user or enterprise data.

General purpose Ais like ChatGPT do not exhibit mastery in most domains. Development of domain-specific large language learning models will occur in 2024. Students will need to be prepared to understand and use these tools in their future careers.

Chat GPT 4 for job interview prep

Domain-specific LLMs are already available and getting better. Early adopters will benefit.

Prediction #14 – Institutions Without a Strategy for Adult Learners and Alternative Credentials Will Struggle

Amy Heitzman, UPCEA Deputy CEO & CLO, writes that given the looming demographic cliff, institutions without an adult learner and alternative credentials strategy will struggle.

Rising inflation and tuition is happening at a time when public support for higher education is waning. Fewer students are persisting toward a degree when lifelong learning is so important. Instead of changing jobs two or three times in our lifetime, it is predicted that we will change careers three or four times in our lifetime. That will require lots of learning.

Institutions that create skill-based records versus credential reporting will build a competitive advantage. As employers reduce their dependence on degrees, the demand for workforce-centered alternative credentials will increase. Online learning is now recognized as more convenient, flexible, and efficient than traditional learning. Effective implementation will attract adult learners.

Much of this is dependent on the financial situation for each institution. Some elite institutions (Harvard, Penn, Duke, Stanford, etc.) have established professional continuing education units that serve adult learners. Building a practice of recruiting adult degree-seeking students will be tough for institutions that are not already serving that group. It will be expensive too.

Prediction #15 – Gainful Employment Rule Will Lead to Increased Attention of Earnings Outcomes

Julie Uranis, UPCEA SVP Online & Strategic Initiatives, writes that institutions will see greater attention to earnings outcomes for all education credentials. The key to federal funding for short-term programs is outcomes. The quality of non-degree credentials is on the radar screen of accreditors. Collecting data now will prepare institutions for future increased scrutiny.

Ms. Uranis fails to mention that the government is only collecting data for students who borrow. Institutions that serve large populations of learners whose education is supported by their employers should heed her advice and find ways to collect data to use as a proof of their ROI versus “praying” that the government’s data will accurately represent most of their students.

Prediction #16 – Those With a Thoughtful Approach to Alternative Credentials Will Gain the Advantage

Aaron Brower, UPCEA Strategic Advisor, writes that alternative credentials will continue to evolve as the next big thing in higher ed. Alternative credentials will provide greater access to a wider range of students at a more affordable price than a degree and will address workforce readiness and skills gaps.

Institutions won’t be able to hang out a shingle and succeed. The market is already crowded. Traditional student marketing practices don’t work in this arena. Institutions that succeed will create long-term strategies that identify their unique niche and value in the market.

Mr. Brower isn’t kidding when he writes that this is a long-term strategy. The market is crowded, as he writes, and anyone with access to a video camera and a website can build a course. Some of these people may know how to market it better than traditional institutions. Don’t attempt this if you aren’t committed to the long-run and to resourcing it properly.


I’ve been a fan of the UPCEA and its work to prepare colleges and universities for the best ways to serve working adults and professionals. These predictions are not far-fetched. Whether they can be utilized by many institutions is a different issue. It might be useful for a president’s cabinet to dedicate a working session to discuss these predictions and their capabilities or shortcomings. The cabinet members should also have an open conversation about the resources required to increase capabilities, particularly if existing staff members are to be utilized.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence