Skip to content

Performance-based Admissions: Online Ed’s Most Disruptive Trend in Decades

Imagine that the entire process of enrolling in a university’s degree program only required 30 minutes, from start to finish—from a student’s typing their name into an online form to downloading their first lesson’s coursework.

Now imagine further that applying doesn’t require obtaining letters of recommendation or official course transcripts, sitting for tests like the GRE or GMAT or admissions interviews, or writing a statement of purpose.

Then imagine that this degree costs less than $30,000, and that the university doesn’t ask for a large tuition deposit but only asks learners to pay for a single credit hour of instruction at a time.

Does this scenario sound like some sort of fantasy from higher education’s world of the future?

This is no fantasy. Believe it or not, this radical, cutting-edge admissions process is already available from several universities in the United States and Europe. In fact, we based the above scenario on an admissions procedure actually operating since late 2019 at a flagship R1 research university, the University of Colorado.

Welcome to the new world of performance-based admissions, also known as PBA.

Overview of Performance Admissions: No Application, Ever

Briefly, performance admissions grants online degree program applicants direct access into a limited number of for-credit “gateway” courses. So long as those provisional students achieve a B average in those courses, the PBA system automatically admits them into the degree program.

There’s no application, ever. Students’ ability to do the work admits them into the program. And their ability to maintain sufficient performance standards keeps them enrolled—just like any other undergraduate or graduate degree program at any accredited institution.

This is higher education’s blockbuster enrollment incentive. It’s arguably the most disruptive trend to rock online education since universities launched their first degree programs on the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s.

And as we’ll see later in this report, recent research suggests that among potential students who are working adults, the competitive advantages of PBA programs against programs with old-fashioned admissions are so compelling that they’re in many ways overwhelming.

Plus PBA packs an even more disruptive punch when universities bundle it with tuition below $30,000 billed on a pay-as-you-go basis per credit. This billing innovation was originally launched by a few online programs in 2019, but gained traction among various online graduate degree programs across the United States during 2023 and early 2024.

Who Developed Performance-based Admissions?

Between 2015 and 2019 a team of professors and administrators at the University of Colorado developed performance-based admissions as an alternative mechanism for admitting new online students to their Boulder campus. That team included:

Dr. Robert Erickson, a professor on the faculty of the university’s Department of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering since 1982 and chair of the department from 2002 to 2006 and 2014 to 2015. An IEEE Fellow and expert on power electronics, Dr. Erickson has published more than 100 journal and conference papers on this subject along with his textbook Fundamentals of Power Electronics. Reportedly he’s offered courses using distance technologies for decades, and as early as 2016 he launched the first power electronics MOOC specialization on Coursera. Dr. Erickson also questioned his colleagues at CU Boulder about why traditional admissions procedures were still necessary for an online degree program, given the innovative advantages we discuss below. Dr. Erickson holds three degrees from the California Institute of Technology, including his PhD.

Dr. William Kuskin, currently the chair of the English department who previously served as the university’s vice provost for academic innovation. During that role in 2019, he oversaw the launch of the university’s revolutionary master of science in electrical engineering on Coursera, which as we describe below was the first degree program at CU Boulder to offer performance-based admissions. He was graduated from Vassar College and holds MA and PhD degrees from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Dr. Quentin Story McAndrew, who served as an assistant vice provost for strategic initiatives at CU Boulder while collaborating on developing the university’s first master’s programs to offer performance-based admissions. In October 2021, she moved to Coursera for a new role as a global academic strategist, and much of our research on performance admissions here at is based on Dr. McAndrew’s published work and presentations. She holds a PhD from the University of Colorado along with two degrees from Stanford University.

What’s the Rationale Behind Performance-based Admissions?

To understand the theory that led CU Boulder to introduce this innovation, it first helps to compare some of the objectives of traditional university applications. During an October 2022 Coursera webinar titled “Performance-based Admissions – How to Reach More Learners,” Dr. McAndrew says:

At Boulder when we began to think about this, we started to ask ourselves—as we began to build for scale and think about access and serving learners—why do we have an application at all?

Well, of course, to qualify students, which makes sense on a campus program where there’s limited space and limited faculty. And to protect the students, we want to vet them to know that they have a high chance of succeeding before they move themselves and invest a lot of money in this program.

Also, we in higher education have made an equation between quality and selectivity, right? So those are the reasons that we have an application.

But what we began to ask ourselves at Boulder was what if it’s an online program where students don’t have to uproot their lives or make a huge investment? What if they can pay by credit-hour? And what if the program doesn’t have real capacity limits?

Why would we have an application? So that is how we got to performance-based admissions.

In other words, Dr. McAndrew says that traditional application procedures mostly evolved to protect investments in on-campus programs by both students and universities. Colleges care about their students and want them to succeed, which is why the schools need high probability that their on-campus admits will graduate; such probabilities protect those students’ large investments in tuition and moving costs. At the same time, universities also need to protect their own investments in limited physical space for classrooms, labs, and offices—as well as investments in salaries for limited numbers of faculty.

But as our readers here at know well, online degree programs aren’t subject to such constraints—meaning their students and universities no longer need these protections. Online students don’t need to move across the country to campus because they can study from anywhere, which means they no longer face moving costs or opportunity costs for years of lost salaries. Meanwhile, after online programs have invested their startup costs in asynchronous course design and software development, these programs don’t need to collect large tuition payments required to offset the substantial costs associated with physical space and faculty.

This online scenario implies two other points. First, it implies that online programs can scale up to accommodate much larger enrollments at far lower marginal costs per additional student than on-campus programs. Second, such online education at scale reduces the college’s needs for large amounts of working capital, an innovation that makes two advantages feasible: much lower tuition, plus segmented payment plans on a credit-hour basis.

Additionally, Coursera’s Dr. Kenton de Kirby points out that the traditional admissions process relying on indicators like transcripts or GRE scores is really a collection of proxy predictors of a learner’s ability to succeed—not the actual ability to succeed in the program itself. He continues:

Performance admissions just goes right for it, right? You are actually measuring the thing that you’re supposed to predict: the ability to succeed in the program. And so you’re admitting students that actually are already succeeding in your program. . .It’s actually better at measuring the thing that you’re interested in.

How Performance Admissions Works

Now let’s look at how students are admitted to the first University of Colorado degree program to offer performance admissions, the college’s online master of science in electrical engineering. Incidentally, in a 2019 article here on we were one of the first publications to cover this program’s innovations.

At CU Boulder, performance-based admission really only requires three steps. A student:

1. Chooses a degree pathway from one of three specializations:

  1. Power Electronics
  2. Embedded Systems
  3. Photonics & Optics

The pathway requires the student to complete three graduate-level gateway courses for academic credit from the course list associated with their selected specialization. These are not specially designed evaluation or review courses; they are the first three courses required for students who choose each specialization.

2. Earns at least a B average GPA for those three courses.

3. Declares intent to pursue the degree.

That’s all it takes. The coursework is the application.

What’s more, Dr. McAndrew said that Boulder’s rapid enrollment process really puts the “now” in “apply now.” She claimed the school’s automated system could create a new account for a student with no prior relationship to the University of Colorado, collect their first credit-hour’s payment, provision their identity, enroll them, and start them in coursework in only 15 to 30 minutes.

However, not all university programs that offer performance-based admissions require at least three graduate courses for a pathway. For example, a new data science master’s degree at the University of Pittsburg only requires a single gateway course with a B or higher grade to win automatic entry under the college’s performance admissions implementation.

Comparing the Required Admissions Elements

Now let’s review the elements typically required by universities with traditional admissions systems. But first, we should point out that two types of performance admissions systems exist, “pure” and “hybrid” programs.

Hybrid programs use the performance admissions label but might also require an element from a traditional application—typically proof of an undergraduate degree. Instead, Boulder’s MSEE program is a pure performance program, meaning it’s one of the few master’s degree programs in the world that does not require an undergraduate degree.

Now, a traditional application to a typical graduate program requires the following lengthy list of elements. An applicant’s providing the university with this entire group usually requires several months of effort, followed by more months waiting for a decision—and once accepted, followed by even more months waiting for the start of their first semester or quarter:

  • Completed application form
  • Official transcripts from undergraduate and prior graduate work
  • Admissions test scores from the GRE, GMAT, LSAT or MCAT
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for international students
  • Two recommendation letters
  • Essay or statement of purpose
  • Resume
  • Admissions interview (some MBA programs)
  • Application fee
  • Application deadline

By contrast, which of these elements does the performance application for the University of Colorado’s MS in electrical engineering require?

  • Nothing

None of the elements listed above are required. Just to reiterate, there’s no “application” in the traditional sense because the coursework is the application.

Why PBA Offers Such a Compelling Enrollment Incentive

Coursera’s recent research helps explain why performance admissions is such a compelling enrollment option for students. Overall, the firm’s polling shows that students on their platform tend not to apply to degree programs for only two reasons. The main reason is tuition cost; ranking second is the application.

Coursera’s survey research, released in late 2022, polled students who won entry in two of Boulder’s three master’s degree programs that offer performance admissions. In the study, 73 percent of the respondents said that they would not have enrolled if their program had required a traditional application process.

Here are the specific reasons that stopped those students from applying through traditional applications:

Letters of recommendation 25%
Standardized tests (GRE, GMAT) 20%
Prerequisite requirements 13%
Low undergraduate GPA 10%

Coursera had 129 million learners on its platform worldwide as of April 2023, of whom about 38 percent plan to enroll in a degree program. Among those with degree plans, about 90 percent are employed, 55 percent are employed full-time, and their average age is 35 years. Compare the survey results with this profile and it’s not difficult to understand all the enthusiastic interest in performance admissions from learners and universities.

For example, at Boulder in October 2019, the online MSEE program’s first two 75-student pathways sold out in 12 hours, and the first 225 enrollments sold out in less than a week. Three years later in October 2022, the university’s first two master’s programs with performance admissions had admitted 860 students and already graduated their first 17. Keep in mind that 628 of those students probably would not have enrolled without performance admissions.

Enrollment in Boulder’s newer online master of science in data science is especially interesting. According to a presentation webcast during Coursera’s March 2023 Investor Day, company executives cited the performance admissions pathway as a major factor in this program’s enrollment growth.

However, Coursera also asked the University of Colorado for two modifications that further drove up enrollment. The first modification requested a price cut that dropped total tuition as low as only $15,750. The second asked the university to accept a dual-credential partnership with IBM. Under this arrangement, students who fulfill the requirements for an IBM data science professional certificate also earn one graduate credit towards their degree from Boulder.

Colorado accepted Coursera’s requests, and the changes drove impressive enrollment growth during spring 2023. The program posted a 50 percent annual increase in spring 2023 recruitment and a 70 percent year-over-year increase in new learner conversions over 2022 levels.

Meanwhile, Boulder’s phenomenal enrollment growth rates have attracted attention from other universities, with five universities on Coursera’s platform having added performance-based admissions during 2023. Aside from the University of Colorado’s three master’s degrees and four stackable graduate certificate programs, thus far we’re aware of PBA options available from the following universities:

  • Ball State University
  • Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Northeastern University
  • Northwestern University
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • University of London
  • University of Pittsburgh

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.