How Online Can Save Small, Private Colleges from Going Under

column | Digital Learning

How Online Can Save Small, Private Colleges from Going Under

By Robert Ubell (Columnist)     Nov 21, 2017

How Online Can Save Small, Private Colleges from Going Under

In the wake of a recent series of small-college closings, the takeaway for small private colleges is that their days may be numbered. Since these schools are largely dependent on student tuition in a time when demographic changes mean fewer available high school graduates, they might as well be on an endangered-species list. Some fifty have closed in the last decade alone, and three have closed in the past few weeks.

To staunch the bleeding, many small colleges have cut things to the bone or, alternatively, invested in country-club style improvements to appeal to students and their families—strategies that may have saved some. But this may only delay the impact of relentless market forces. Some observers aren’t as pessimistic, it should be said. “We continue to believe—and we think we’ve documented it pretty well—that most small colleges have the capability to be resilient in the face of these challenges,” said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, in Inside Higher Ed. “There are a small number of colleges that are in very serious trouble,” he said. “But there are also a significant number of small colleges, 20 percent of them, that are just soaring. They’re doing very well.” But Moody's predicts that the number of small failing colleges and universities will triple in the coming years and mergers will double.

One strategy for these colleges to avoid extinction is to diversify—to avoid a precarious reliance on residential students. And one way to do that is by adding online programs to the mix.

The challenge for many small colleges is that they see online courses as at odds with their very identity. After all, these institutions embrace intimacy as central to their mission, with close, mentoring relationships between faculty and students, and deep, comradely connections among students—essential ingredients of highly engaged learning. For many, online fails to meet these crucial education ambitions. Instead, they reject virtual instruction as alienated learning, with isolated faculty and students coldly facing inert computer screens—not one another.

Yet in post-industrial America, the digital world is as “real” as it gets, with most of us doing our shopping, binge-watching our favorite shows, texting and chatting with friends and following them on Facebook, and clacking away at keyboards all day at work. Today, serious research is impossible without searching databases, hunting references on Google Scholar and emailing colleagues worldwide. Rejecting online is a retreat into nostalgia.

One problem is that some faculty long for a return to the simpler times of the past, as I argue my new book, Going Online. Small schools—mostly in the Northeast and Midwest—are charming stage sets of Jeffersonian pastoral democracy, a fantasy even in its own time.

That’s one reason why so few small colleges have jumped into providing online programs. “About fifty percent of U.S. colleges and universities have no more than a smattering of online enrollments, with little, if any, offered by most small private schools,” said Jeffrey Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, which tracks online enrollment.

There is growing recognition of the quality of online models. With the scholarly literature almost universally confirming that online may be as good or better than conventional instruction, arguments against it seem a bit curmudgeonly, following those who turn their backs on solid evidence. With Harvard finally going online, you wonder why so many schools have let digital instruction pass them by.

It turns out that online programs open education to those who couldn’t attend otherwise. Nontraditional students now comprise nearly three-quarters of America’s college population. With many young adults working, caring for families, or traveling on the job, commuting to campus is not so easy and may even present real hardship, an impossible burden when you’re occupied with sometimes crushing demands at home or at work. As small colleges reach out to these new students, they might also turn threadbare balance sheets from red to black.

Daunting Shift

Since it’s likely that faculty and staff members at small private colleges have little or no experience delivering digital programs, here are a few tips:

There are more options than ever for colleges to enter the online-degree space. While it can seem daunting, it’s possible to go it alone—as I did 20 years ago at Stevens Institute of Technology, a small technical school in New Jersey.

You’ll need to come up with a modest investment in expert staff, skilled at instructional design and digital recruitment. You’ll also need to find an online-learning champion, an effective leader who is a strong advocate for the pedagogical benefits of virtual instruction. If you’re lucky, you may have just the right anchor right on campus, either on staff or among your faculty. Chances are, at first, you may not need to invest in wiz-bang learning technology, since, like most schools, you already have a learning management system in place for your residential students. There’s no need to replace it with an upgrade. Your present LMS is likely to do just fine.

Or you can turn to companies that help colleges build online programs, who will come to your aid for a fee to do pieces of the online puzzle for you, relieving you and your staff of tasks you may not be skilled at, especially digital recruitment and instructional design. Some, known as OPM’s (or online program managers) also act like banks, financing your virtual programs in exchange for a sizeable slice of your revenue (often requiring 50 percent of revenue from online programs for a set number of years). The good news about OPMs is that if your new digital program flops, you’ll get off scot-free (except for faculty compensation) since your OPM invested all the money. But just like going on your own, you’ll need to put an online champion in place to coordinate everything for you.

While faculty resistance to teaching online is still a serious obstacle, imagine how it was 20 years ago when I was asked to launch a new digital learning unit at Stevens Institute of Technology. In my appeals to the faculty to consider migrating their on-campus degrees online, Freud might have diagnosed their response as “passive aggressive”—many with blank stares; others only half paying attention, their gaze out the window or on the tips of their shoes.

A few early adopters signed on, but it was slow going at first, with most ignoring my overtures. The turnabout came when a highly-respected scholar, a dig-his-heels-in opponent, not only dropped his disapproval of digital learning, but became a fervent advocate, teaching online himself and encouraging others to follow. Practically overnight, most of the rest of the faculty jumped in. The denouement is that today, Stevens offers nearly 60 online programs and has won national awards, too.

Small colleges have a good chance at turning things around and thriving if they give online a chance and recruit older, mid-career students. Chances are your online students will be honored to “walk,” diploma in hand, finally visiting your beautiful campus at commencement.

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