This blog post was written by Erica Winters, Sr. Research Analyst & Social Media Strategist at Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS). 

In recent years, we’ve seen an expanding popularity in digital education options provided in higher education. This growth is due in part to increasing interest among students, as well as skyrocketing tuition prices, and declining enrollment in traditional higher education academic programs. Declining state financial support has put a larger strain on institutions, playing a role in increasing tuition prices. In 2016, the enrollment in U.S. higher education institutions also continued to decline, with small colleges and for-profit programs taking the biggest hit.

Digital education options that continue to grow in popularity include:

  • Microcredentials/Microdegrees

As tuition costs continue to rise, prospective students are seeking alternatives to a traditional academic degree program. Certificate programs, academic badges, and combined degree programs are popping up on more campuses than ever before. Coursera and edX are well known for offering free certificates in online learning. Academic badges represent the achievement of a specialized skill and often require less coursework than certificates. Instead of a certificate or degree credential, the student earns what often looks like a badge, which can be displayed on resumes, social media, and digital portfolios to enhance a current skill set or job application. EdX also provides combined degree programs which they’re calling MicroMasters credentials. The program includes a series of graduate courses taken with edX, and the student can then apply to the partner institution to finish the degree. By starting the graduate program online at a reduced price, the student ultimately incurs a lower program cost but obtains a degree from a well-respected institution.

Although not a replacement for a full academic program, employers are finding value in these specialized alternatives, as they continue to voice concerns regarding the transferable skill set of some traditional higher education programs.

  • Expanded Online Degree Options

Online learning programs typically cater to career fields such as data analytics, business, and cyber security/IT given the decreased need for hands-on learning. This year we expect to see more specialized online degree options offered in fields such as construction, occupational therapy, veterinary technology, arts, law, athletic training, fire science, culinary management, and agriculture. With a heightened need to prove the value of education to prospective students and employers, institutions are finding success in offering online degrees in specialized areas (such as marketing) rather than more broad programs (such as business administration).

  • The Use of Artificial Intelligence/Virtual Reality

As artificial intelligence (AI) technology becomes progressively more ingrained in today’s technology, we’re seeing more adoption among higher education institutions. Colleges and universities are finding creative ways to incorporate AI into the teaching landscape. Some institutions are using AI technology to provide virtual teaching assistants, which communicate with students and supply instructional support. Industry experts expect AI to become a valuable tool for allowing students to submerge themselves in the learning process. For example, some experts suggest AI would allow students studying foreign language to immerse themselves in foreign places and contexts, while others could find an enhanced learning experience while studying the solar system. The primary barrier to using AI in the classroom has largely been a lack of affordable options. Google Cardboard  is a cost-effective virtual reality option that turns a smartphone into a virtual reality headset using coordinating applications, although features are currently limited in terms of higher education applicability.

RMS is a full-service market research firm located in Baldwinsville, NY. If you are interested in learning more about our higher education research capabilities, please contact Sandy Baker, our Senior Director of Business Development & Corporate Strategy at or by calling 1-866-567-5422.