At the Edge of a Cliff, Some Colleges Are Teaming Up to Survive (2023)

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Faced with declining enrollment, smaller schools are harnessing innovative ideas — like course sharing — to attract otherwise reluctant students.

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At the Edge of a Cliff, Some Colleges Are Teaming Up to Survive (1)

By Jon Marcus

This article is part of our Learning special report about how the pandemic has continued to change how we approach education.

Dylan Smith went to high school just two miles from Adrian College but wasn’t interested in applying to the Michigan liberal arts school of just over 1,600 undergraduates. As much as he liked the idea of a small campus, he didn’t think a liberal arts degree would do much to help him land a job.

Even when Adrian recruited him to wrestle and play football, Mr. Smith kept his sights set on Michigan State University, which has nearly 50,000 students. He planned to major not in history or English, but in the high-demand field of supply chain management.

Then, supply chain management suddenly showed up among the offerings at Adrian.

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“I couldn’t say no to getting the degree I wanted from a smaller school, instead of at a big university where you’re looking at 200 students in a class,” said Mr. Smith, now an Adrian sophomore.

The school is among a fast-growing number of mostly small liberal arts colleges that are adding explicitly career-focused programs through a little-noticed innovation called course sharing.

It’s a sort of Amazon Prime approach to higher education that lets majors in the humanities and other disciplines “stream” classes, often taught by star faculty from top universities, in fields such as coding — without leaving their home campuses.

Using technologies that made major progress during the pandemic — most notably, the delivery of education online — course sharing generally teams up universities and colleges that have extra space in online classes with partner institutions that want to add new programs but can’t afford the time or money to develop them alone.

At Adrian College, supply chain management courses are taught primarily by instructors from Lasell University in Massachusetts. Both schools are part of a coalition of colleges and universities that share courses with each other, often in consultation with subject-matter experts from universities including Rutgers, Harvard, Michigan, Duke and Yale.

“You get an Adrian degree, you have an Adrian experience, you play your sport,” said Ryan Boyd, another Adrian student who, through course sharing, was able to add a minor in computer science to his business management major. “But you get to take courses from Michigan and Harvard.”

The approach is a response by some small colleges to a worsening enrollment crisis, mounting competition from other educational providers that focus mainly on job skills, and increasing skepticism among students and their parents that an investment in higher education will pay off. Nearly two-thirds of high school seniors now say a degree is not worth the cost, according to a survey by the left-leaning think tanks New America and Third Way.

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“Course sharing lets us maintain what we are, which is small and residential, but compete on selection and price,” said Rick Ostrander, an assistant to the president for academic innovation at Westmont College in California. “It’s a way to be more competitive with the big players while still keeping your prime value of residential education.”

For the same or similar reasons, course sharing is also being rapidly adopted by some community colleges, rural institutions, historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, and universities that serve large numbers of Hispanic students, called minority-serving institutions, or MSIs.

“We’ve been talking about the sharing economy for two decades, for goodness’ sake,” said Parminder Jassal, the chief executive of Unmudl, which is developing technology to make it easier for institutions to share courses. “We’ve been sharing through Airbnb. We’re sharing cars. We’re sharing everything. Higher education is probably the last place the idea of sharing is finally hitting.”

In Survival Mode

Through course sharing, colleges can cheaply and quickly add the programs students want, attracting critical enrollment while paying other teaching institutions — the ones that provide the already-developed courses — a discounted price per course. A growing number of intermediaries that provide the technology needed to connect the partners often also get a fee.

“This is remaking the business model,” said Jeffrey Docking, the president of Adrian College, which has used course sharing to add majors, minors and certificate programs in 17 fields in just the last two years, including computer science, web design, cybersecurity and public health.

Like Mr. Smith, Mr. Boyd — who’s still at Adrian, where he’s now finishing his master’s degree in business administration — was conflicted about going to a small liberal arts college before that computer science minor was added. “The main attraction for me was the small class size, the small campus,” he said. “But a small campus often means a lack of options.”

Those kinds of perceptions have become an especially big problem for private colleges with low enrollments such as Adrian, 81 of which have closed in the last decade, according to the U.S. Department of Education. More are expected to fail as enrollment continues to languish and pandemic relief funding dries up.

“Hundreds of schools are going to go out of business if we don’t figure this out,” said Dr. Docking.

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Small liberal arts colleges are in particular trouble, suffering from a decline in interest in the humanities. The number of degrees awarded in humanities disciplines has fallen 14 percent in the last 10 years, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences reports.

Consumers today want to study subjects they see as leading straight to careers. Even before the pandemic, getting a good job was the most important reason students gave for going to college, a national survey of freshmen by the University of California, Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute showed.

Yet half of new graduates said they’ve stopped short of applying for even entry-level jobs because they felt underqualified and unsure of their skills, according to another survey, by the publishing and technology company Cengage. And half of students who earned bachelor’s degrees in the arts and humanities said they would now choose a different field of study, yet another survey, by the Federal Reserve, found.

“There’s that reality out in the world — whether it’s social, whether it’s parental, whether it’s political — that goes, ‘Well, what good is a philosophy degree going to do for me?’ ” said Stephen Pruitt, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, or SREB, and a former Kentucky state commissioner of education. “Course sharing gives people a chance to add those credentials that they can see more directly leading to a job.”

The Liberal Arts Conundrum

At least half of employers say graduates with liberal arts degrees do, in fact, learn “very important” job skills, a survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities found.

But that message hasn’t gotten out, said Ashley Finley, the vice president of research at the association of largely liberal arts-oriented colleges. She is heading up a program that began in August called the Curriculum-to-Career Innovations Institute, designed to better connect what the colleges teach with what students need to get jobs. Fifty-four colleges and universities have signed up, the association says.

“You can’t fault parents and students for not seeing the one-to-one between the major and the job it’s going to lead to,” Dr. Finley said.

Adding more vocational training to traditional education appears to be a popular way of addressing this. Asked which candidate they’d hire for a job, people surveyed by Kaplan preferred an English major who also has a credential in cybersecurity over someone with only an English degree or only a cybersecurity degree.

“It’s an incredible thing to polish a liberal arts résumé to say, ‘Sure, I’m an English major, but look what else I’ve got,’ ” said Brandon Busteed, the chief partnership officer and global head of learn-work innovation at Kaplan. Employers want “the specifically skilled graduate who is also generally educated.”

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For many colleges, however, developing new programs themselves takes too long and costs too much — as much as $2.2 million per program, according to EAB, a higher education consulting firm.

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“The way that higher education has always worked is, if I wanted to offer those courses to students, I would have had to go out and hire a faculty member, add those courses and see if students would take them,” said Ann Fulop, the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Eureka College in Illinois. Eureka used course sharing to add a computer science major this fall, instead of developing it from scratch. “And if they don’t, what do I do with that faculty member?”

Colleges located near each other — in Atlanta, central Massachusetts’ Amherst area, Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and elsewhere — have long shared in-person courses and programs. Online delivery has the potential to vastly multiply those kinds of collaborations.

“It’s like taking that same idea, but being able to expand the boundaries nationally or globally instead of just regionally,” Dr. Ostrander of Westmont College said.

He said the trend has also been propelled by broader acceptance of online education among faculty at liberal arts colleges who once looked down their noses at it — and by those faculty members’ awareness that their own jobs may be on the line if students stop coming.

Why the Concept Is Growing

“What faculty have seen is that this can be a way for them to strengthen their departments and grow their enrollments,” said Dr. Ostrander.

Hundreds of colleges have joined course-sharing networks since late 2018, when the Council of Independent Colleges launched its Online Course Sharing Consortium. It now has 303 member institutions. The Southern Regional Education Board’s HBCU and MSI Course-Sharing Consortium, announced in May, already has 14. The Lower Cost Models for Independent Colleges Consortium, which includes course sharing among its projects, has 135, up from 70 before the pandemic, said Dr. Docking, the Adrian president, who is on its three-person steering committee.

“These are hard times for small colleges,” said Marjorie Hass, the president of the Council of Independent Colleges and a former president of Rhodes College in Tennessee and Austin College in Texas. “They’re hard times for all colleges. But small colleges are really good at being creative. And working collaboratively is one of the creative things that we can do.”

Technology companies are cashing in on this trend, developing platforms through which colleges are linking up. One of the biggest, Acadeum, powers cooperatives including the Online Course Sharing Consortium and DigiTex, a course-sharing consortium of community colleges in Texas. (In addition to his role at Westmont, Dr. Ostrander is an academic partnerships specialist at Acadeum.)

Rize Education connects colleges that jointly develop, and split the cost of, new degree programs, majors, minors and certificate courses. Quottly expedites the exchange of courses, programs and credits among colleges and universities.

These go-betweens are necessary because sharing courses is “much more difficult than people realize,” said Dr. Docking, who has a minority ownership stake in Rize. “Every school has 20 kids on different financial aid packages. Campuses are in different time zones. What if a kid has problems with their grades? Who do they go to? How do they know when to sign up for these courses?”

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Financial arrangements vary. Home institutions decide what to charge for a course, which is typically more than the rate set by the teaching institution, so that both schools make money. Acadeum gets 25 percent of the tuition collected by the teaching institution and charges course-hosting and platform access fees that total $2,250 to $18,000 a year, depending on college’s enrollment size, according to a Council of Independent Colleges breakdown.

But the real money is in getting students to enroll. The new majors that Adrian College has added through course sharing lured 49 students last year and 51 this year who otherwise would not have come, the university says. That translates to more than $8 million in tuition, fees, and room and board over the four years of those students’ educations.

Turning the Decline Around

Eureka College’s course-sharing computer science major brought in nine new freshmen this semester who Dr. Fulop said wouldn’t otherwise have come; before then, she said, the college was losing prospects who wanted career-focused majors. Rochester University in Michigan, which has 1,100 students, added seven programs through course sharing, including digital marketing, computer science and certified financial planning, programs that it says collectively attracted 78 applicants — 32 of whom enrolled.

“This can be a way of saying, ‘We’re willing to go beyond what we have here, if that’s what you want. We’d much rather you stay here, so let’s figure out a way to get you that course,’ ” said Ben Selznick, an associate professor in strategic leadership studies at James Madison University, who focuses on innovation in higher education.

Community colleges are using course sharing, too, both to restore their enrollment, which has also been plummeting, and to fill gaps caused by faculty departures, said Rufus Glasper, the president and chief executive of the League for Innovation in the Community College. “This may be another leg of the stool until we can stabilize our enrollment going forward,” he said.

HBCUs are also adopting the approach.

“A student chooses a small HBCU for its overall culture,” said Roslyn Clark Artis, the president of Benedict College, an HBCU in South Carolina, and co-chair of the SREB course-sharing consortium. “That doesn’t mean the student then shouldn’t have access to programs that can be considered professional in nature.”

As for the advantage to the college, she said, having career-focused programs available through course sharing “is a marketing element for us.”

And it’s having an effect, based on the decisions of some applicants.

Even though she wanted to go to a smaller college, Jordan Hunt had dismissed the idea of applying to Adrian because it didn’t have a computer science major. “Then they started up the major.” Ms. Hunt is now a sophomore at Adrian studying computer science.

Rebekah Wright went to the even smaller Emmaus Bible College in Iowa, which had an enrollment last year of 193 students. She and her parents alike “thought that it would be just way too small. One of their questions when I visited Emmaus was, ‘What’s the placement rate? How many students go directly into the workforce?’ ”

Through course sharing, however, Ms. Wright was able to add digital marketing to her business administration major, and she now works as a digital marketer — for the college.

Optimism for the Future

An ardent advocate for course sharing, Dr. Docking, the president of Adrian, said it can save imperiled colleges and their unique cultures.

“I want to preserve everything that’s good about these kinds of schools,” he said. “I want kids to move to a college and sing in the choir and be on the sports teams and be in that teaching-learning relationship with a professor — everything that has guided these schools for the last 150 to 200 years” — but also have access to more subjects consumers see as vocationally useful.

“If we’re willing to work together, and share some courses,” Dr. Docking said, “we can offer many, many more majors and minors and academic programs for very little cost.”

Jon Marcus has written about higher education for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Time, US News, and The Boston Globe, among others. He is a higher education editor at The Hechinger Report and has been North America correspondent for The Times (U.K.) Higher Education Magazine, and former editor in chief of Boston Magazine.

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2 May 2019

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