My father was a mechanic. He could fix just about anything. As a young boy, whenever I asked him to fix my bike or later, my car, he would agree to do it if I watched (and handed him tools whenever he needed them). Dad maintained that there was a lot of value to having “common sense” and experience. Watching him fix my car meant that I might be able to fix it by myself the next time something broke.
I learned about the importance of survey construct in my Marketing Research course in business school. Psychology students learn something similar. While statistical techniques and models can be used to evaluate the data generated through surveys, it’s important to pose the questions in a manner that avoids survey bias.
Thanks to the widespread adoption and utilization of the internet, it’s easier than ever to survey people. In some cases, the survey is developed by a firm whose principals have honed the art of creating unbiased surveys and building statistical sampling models that minimize the number of respondents but maintain targeted representation. In other cases, it is not.
Decreasing Undergraduate Enrollments
Undergraduate enrollments in the United States peaked in 2010 at 18.1 million students. By 2021, undergraduate enrollments declined to 15.4 million students. Traditional colleges operate through a fixed cost model. Projected student enrollments and tuition are targeted to cover the costs of instruction as well as administrative and student services.
When colleges and universities experience an enrollment shortfall or must discount their tuition more to attract the same number of students, revenues decline. A decline in revenues must be matched by a cut in expenses. When employees’ (faculty and staff) wages and salaries comprise most of your variable expenses, colleges look to cut academic programs and services.
Low Enrollment Academic Programs
Recently, the decision by West Virginia University President Gordon Gee to cut 169 faculty and 30+ degree programs to reduce a projected $45 million deficit enraged faculty members teaching in low enrollment programs. I defended Mr. Gee’s recommendations, but not the management decisions that put them in a difficult situation requiring severe cost cuts.
Just this week, Bradley University announced that it will cut over 20 degree programs and 68 faculty positions in order to reduce a $13 million budget shortfall. In an era of declining undergraduate enrollments, there are and will be many other announcements like Bradley’s and WVU’s.
Course Sharing History
Eduventures Senior Analyst Chris Gardiner published an article this week titled Balancing Tradition and Technology: The Pros and Cons of Course Sharing in Higher Education. He opens the article by reciting the National Student Clearinghouse’s recent report that Fall 2023 freshmen enrollments declined by 3.6%. Declines in enrollment many times lead to evaluations of low enrollment programs in order to cut expenses that exceed revenues.
Mr. Gardiner writes “enter course-sharing consortia: a handful of companies allowing schools to launch in-demand majors, concentrations, and embedded certificates by sharing courses – online courses – with each other.” He adds that “while this…could be a lifeline for some institutions, is it what traditional students want?”
Citing the fact that consortia are an old idea in higher education, Mr. Gardiner adds that with the birth of the internet, “a new group of consortia came to be: the online consortia.” He further adds that “these groups aim to provide cost efficiency for online course delivery by pooling resources across institutions within a state or local system.”
Mr. Gardiner mentions Mass Colleges Online, MarylandOnline, and Colorado Community Colleges Online as entities pooling resources for state schools. He writes that companies like Rize Education and Acadeum are positioning their services as a way for institutions to add new (and in-demand) majors minus the risk of additional expense.
Lastly, Mr. Gardiner writes that “available information does not reveal any institutions offering a full 20-course major via online course-sharing.” I’m not sure of the relevance of his comment, but will discuss it later.
Course Sharing: Beyond Just Sharing Hosting Costs for Online Courses
It is clear from visiting the website of Rize Education that their primary purpose for course sharing is to provide small colleges with a quick and affordable way to add new degrees. Acadeum’s website states a different purpose one where “hundreds of colleges and universities use Acadeum’s course-sharing platform to improve retention, expand their catalogs, and recover revenue.”
It’s clear to me that Rize and Acadeum (full disclosure: I am a board member of Acadeum) have found ways to broaden the traditional use of online course sharing consortia beyond sharing the operational costs of building, teaching, and hosting online courses.
Having operated a very large online university (APUS), I remember many ways we operated to meet the needs of our working adult students. Monthly course and semester starts were one way. Enrolling in an online course offered on a sharing platform that starts mid-term is a way that students can maintain their academic status if they drop a course in the middle of a traditional fall or spring semester.
Consortial agreements state how many credits transfer for each course, how grades transfer, and that student financial aid for the course is administered by the students’ home institution. Payments are institution to institution. It’s a much more seamless process for the student and his home institution.
Teaching institutions know that the student is enrolling to specifically transfer the course credit back to their home institution and avoid classifying them as degree seeking and a dropout after completing one course. Home institutions that send students who drop courses to an online course starting in the middle of their academic term are more likely to retain that student.
Are Online Courses Acceptable to On-campus Students?
Mr. Gardiner writes that “the success of these course sharing arrangements cannot be ignored.” He adds that these are online courses for traditional undergrads who signed up for residential experiences and poses the question, “are these students going to find it acceptable to take a portion of their courses online?”
Several questions from an Eduventures Prospective Student Research study are cited by Mr. Gardiner as proof that most prospective undergraduates expect to have all courses on campus. Based on the specific survey question, I believe that Mr. Gardiner’s conclusion is not necessarily sound.
Survey participants were given four choices for responding to a question about course modality expectation: all courses on campus, all courses online, hybrid, and don’t know/unsure. There was not an option to choose “some courses online.” If the purpose of the survey was to determine the appropriateness of online course sharing, the question was poorly designed.
Online courses offered by Rize and Acadeum and the other online consortia are not hybrid courses (where the student attends part of the class online and part of the class in a campus-based classroom), but does a prospective college freshman understand the difference between an asynchronous or synchronous online course and a hybrid course? I doubt it.
In addition, while the percentage of students expecting all courses to be on campus is the majority, the percentages of students willing to be flexible is not insignificant. Furthermore, a 2022 EDUCAUSE Student Technology survey indicated that college students’ modality preferences have moved more toward online since 2020.
Mr. Gardiner writes that there might be the risk of a lack of transparency about these hybrid programs offered by institutions utilizing the Rize and Acadeum platforms. Given that neither of these platforms are available to students unless directed to them by their institution, the issue of transparency resides with the institution, not the platform.
Expanding Degree Opportunities Through Consortia Agreements
I didn’t have to declare a major at my undergraduate alma mater, Duke University, until the end of my sophomore year. One option that Duke offered was Program II. I considered building a journalism course of study (not offered by Duke) and discussed with my advisor the option of taking journalism courses at UNC Chapel Hill and NC State thanks to consortial agreements between Duke and those two universities.
I decided that Program II was not a good option for me. My primary reason was that I did not own a car. Taking a bus to UNC and NC State for classes was not going to work. I opted to major in History and minor in English. Almost all my coursework involved writing papers. Journalism was not so important that I opted to transfer in order to earn a journalism degree.
If I were in a similar situation today, I would consider the Program II option at Duke if I were able to take journalism classes online. A liberal arts degree requires eight courses in a major (not 20 as stated by Mr. Gardiner). I would be willing to take up to eight courses online from another school if most of my courses were in person at Duke.
Based on my experiences as well as the cases cited by Rize and Acadeum, I believe most students would be willing to take online courses at other institutions to major in a program not offered at their home institution. I assume that the costs and time to pilot those program expansion options are easier than conducting surveys of prospective students.
Relevance of Program Outweighs Mode of Instruction
In fairness to Mr. Gardiner, at the end of his article, he cites some of the benefits offered by the Rize and Acadeum platforms. However, his recommendation for transparency of the “hybrid” nature of the programs belongs to the institutions, not the platforms.
If there were faculty and institutional holdouts skeptical about the capabilities of online courses, the situation that ensued during the Covid 19 crisis reduced their numbers significantly. Today’s students (both existing college students as well as prospective college students) have experienced online courses in college and high school (by the way, the Acadeum platform offers shared online dual enrollment courses for eligible high school students).
Should institutions that expand their program offerings through consortial agreements be transparent with students? Absolutely! Should colleges ignore the potential improvement in student retention by being able to access online courses through these platforms? NO! Should they supplement their degrees with online course sharing? Why not?
Should colleges seek cost recovery by offering unsold seats in low enrollment classes to other colleges through an online course sharing platform? Absolutely!
By all accounts, the next decade will be tough for enrollment dependent colleges. Presidents, provosts, and others will need to examine all opportunities to manage costs and increase or maintain revenues. Utilizing an online course sharing platform is a tool that they should have as an option to do both.