Charting Your Clinical Program’s Path Towards Long Term Success (Part One)

01/28/19   |  
Dr. Cindy Wheatley

Entering Uncharted Waters

Online licensure-based programs are trending and with good reason. Graduate health and social services programs have more job postings than degrees conferred annually! Taking high contact programs like these and converting them to online is challenging, yes, but ensures a knowledgeable and staffed future field. We speak with many ­institutions that do not believe they can scale programs that require clinical or field placements. Graduate health and social services programs such as the Master of Social Work, Master of Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Master of Nursing, and Master of Speech-Language Pathology are experiencing tremendous online growth nationally, proving that quality clinical education can be delivered to a distributed population of students at scale. Our experience working with these innovative programs has taught us that there is a great opportunity for those institutions who are willing to build on their existing on-campus programs and deliver an exceptional online student experience. That said, we also understand the very real concerns of those institutions that do not have experience translating their on-ground programs into an online delivery modality.

Exploring the option of growing one of these programs does not make a school a sellout, instead, it further establishes a program’s reputation as an innovator and thought the leader in the field.  It shifts the conversation from complaining about field shortages to taking action and realizing actual improvements to our nation’s access to care and health. Schools that embrace the online classroom move from being a small contributor to an impactful change agent; regulating how institutions prepare students for their professional careers. In one sentence, online licensure-based programs are a game-changer at the university and national level.

In this two-part blog series, we will address some of these concerns. Part One is written by our SVP for Global Research and Program Development, Dr. Cindy Wheatley, who addresses the compelling reasons for institutions to consider delivering their clinically-based programs online. Despite the strong market indicators for growth, we understand that numbers don’t tell the whole story. Program administrators and faculty are concerned about meeting accreditation standards, maintaining high pass rates, employment for their graduates, and placement and supervision of their students in the field. These critical issues will be addressed by our Global VP for Placement Operations, Mallory Schindler, in the second part of this blog series. 

Part One: The case for offering clinically-based programs online

It is no secret that the demand for health and human services professionals is strong, especially in fields such as social work, nursing, mental health counseling, and speech-language pathology. Here are a few statistics that help paint the national picture:

·       In 2016-17 there were 18,119 speech-language pathology graduate admissions on 64,000 applications: a 28% acceptance rate.

·       In 2016 there were 682,000 social workers employed with an additional 102,000 new and replacement jobs projected by 2026.

·       Seventy percent of students enrolled in masters-level nurse practitioner programs in 2017 were enrolled in Family Nurse Practitioner programs.

·       The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects over 109,000 new and replacement jobs for counselors by 2026.

In all of these in-demand fields, there are more job postings than degrees conferred annually.  A contributing factor to this shortage of qualified professionals is the length of time it takes to complete the required master’s degrees and qualify for licensure. Another constraint is that enrollment in these programs is often capped due to clinical or field placement requirements, as well as faculty limitations.

Demand for online programs in these fields has increased dramatically in the past five years. These online programs serve career changers as well as career enhancers, working professionals who need the convenience of online learning in order to pursue advanced education while maintaining full-time employment. Online learning also serves these professions with critical shortages, especially in remote locations that do not have adequate numbers of qualified healthcare providers. Increasing program capacity increases access to quality care nationwide.

Along with the ethical reasons for serving a larger, distributed population of students, institutions can also reap significant financial benefits of larger programs that are managed efficiently. Our partners typically break even within 1-2 years of launching a program with Keypath and realize net profits of $1-$2 million per year that can be reinvested back into the program or to support campus-based programs.

Finally, through great advances in technology and online pedagogy, the quality of online programs can meet—or even exceed—the quality of campus-based programs. While most clinical programs do have at least one campus residency requirement, most of the didactic learning occurs online using both synchronous and asynchronous learning activities that promote a cohesive learning community.

In this post, I have tried to address the question of why institutions should consider launching their clinical programs online. In the next post-Mallory, Schindler will address the question of how institutions can develop, launch, and scale their programs.