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Wilkes University: Case Study of Graduate/Online Program Growth

In our book, Transforming for Turbulent Times, we talk about how important it is for colleges and universities to build the capacity to develop new offerings. We believe that they must do this for two reasons: 1) to compensate for anticipated declines in traditional enrollments and 2) to develop the capacity to serve new, promising markets in new ways.

In a case study recently added to our collection, we describe Wilkes University’s efforts to develop and sustain this capacity over a 50-year period. We detail the programs developed and review lessons learned from this experience; we believe these lessons could be instructive for institutions embarking on service to new markets.

Wilkes University is a small independent institution located in Wilkes Barre, PA. Its 2021-22 FTE enrollments were 2095 undergraduate and 1484 graduate learners. From its founding in 1933, the University has had a tradition of public service. In addition to the non-residential graduate and online programs, which are the focus of this case, Wilkes offers a robust undergraduate program and operates a Pharmacy School and professional programs in Nursing and Engineering.

The case describes in detail the programs developed over a 50-year timeframe. These include educational technology for K-12 teachers, innovative off-campus teacher professional development courses, masters and doctoral programs in education, masters and doctoral level programs in nursing, and a branch campus in Mesa, Arizona. The figure below shows full-time equivalent undergraduate and graduate enrollments at Wilkes for the last 40 years. It reveals a program that has grown significantly since 1984 but has also faced headwinds at several points in time.

One key factor in the success of the programs described in this case study was partnerships that enabled Wilkes to offer programs that it could not have mounted alone. These partners included highly successful and innovative providers of teacher professional development and Online Program Managers (OPMs) that enabled Wilkes to mount large and highly successful off-campus nursing programs.

Key Conclusions From This Case

Wilkes' 50-Year Commitment to Serving New Markets in New Ways Has Paid Off. Wilkes’ efforts to enter and serve new markets have both augmented and stabilized the University’s revenue stream, and there is every reason to believe they will continue to do so. In addition, the capacities Wilkes has developed to succeed in these markets have enabled it to function more effectively in traditional markets. The University’s pivot to online learning in its campus-based programs because of COVID was much smoother because of the expertise it had already developed to serve new markets.

Recurring, Rapid Cycles of Growth and Decline. Wilkes’ experience, particularly in the last two decades, indicates that institutions attempting to move into new markets must be prepared for rapid cycles of program growth and decline as learner needs change rapidly in the much more turbulent world of today. One example from this study was the withdrawal of state support for teacher continuing education in Pennsylvania beginning in 2009.

Resilience and Competitive Pricing. In the face of this turbulence, programs will need to be designed for resilience so they can be collapsed or built rapidly. They will also have to be offered at a lower, more competitive pricing.

Meet Learners’ Workforce Training Needs. Most of these new programs will have to be designed to incorporate the learners’ workplace training needs as the integration of knowledge, work, and learning increases. Since Wilkes’ entry into the graduate/online market, this design consideration has driven program development and has been a decisive competitive advantage.

Partnerships Will Become a Key Element in Successful Higher Education Program Development and Delivery. From the Wilkes experience, it is clear they demand considerable administrative and coordination effort, but they provide the benefit of capabilities most institutions need but cannot afford to mount on their own. In addition, as partnerships increase, institutions will need personnel with greater expertise in negotiating and administering contracts.

Leadership for the Development of These Programs Can Come from All Levels of the Organization. That said, organization-wide transformation requires institutional enrollment goals and orchestrated, sustained support from all levels.

Looking Ahead to 2030, the Basic Faculty Role Can be Expected to Change. It likely will be differentiated into more focused roles like curriculum design, course delivery, and student assessment. As practiced by some institutions, this differentiation has led to lower costs, faster program development and adaptation, and higher-quality curricula. While faculty will continue to share in curriculum leadership, it will be imperative that they become more attuned to and willing to take part in addressing the imperatives of today’s higher education market.

Senior Higher Education Leaders Must Set Priorities, Make Investments, and Take Major Risks. When programs fail, they need to be shut down quickly.

Institutions That Have Experience in Serving New Markets with New Approaches Are Much More Likely to be Successful Than Those that Lag Behind. Wilkes’ early entry into serving new markets and leveraging information technology provided a leg up in mounting innovative programs for new markets.

OPMs Have Proven to be a Useful Vehicle for Institutions that Seek to Move with Dispatch into New Markets. That said, higher education leaders working with OPMs must become much more savvy in their dealings with them. In addition, the Biden Administration recently issued draft guidance on the regulation of “third party servicers,” with the primary objective of increasing oversight of OPMs. The impact of these efforts has yet to be determined.


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