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Trusteeship Magazine

Different Approaches to Online Education

By Julie Bourbon

University of Southern California

Residential Undergraduate and Graduate Programs; Online Graduate Program

There was a time when cutting-edge distance education at the University of Southern California (USC) meant that students in the aerospace industry gathered together in a room to watch a professor in a television studio elsewhere give a lecture. The satellite transmission was beamed to them via microwave dish, and a landline telephone allowed students to call the teacher with questions and receive real-time answers. A courier carried assignments back and forth between the two locations. The university was one of the first higher education institutions in the country to offer this type of course.

C.L. Max Nikias, president of USC for the past two years, remembers well those days in the ’70s. In 2001, when he became dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, he began the move to online courses that much more closely resemble what students today have come to expect. Now, half of USC’s 18 graduate schools offer online degrees; within the next five years, all will do so. The institution’s professional, graduate, and continuing-education programs—which reach 5,500 today, with plans to double that in the next five years—bring in annual revenue of $114 million.

“I know how disruptive this technology is,” said Nikias, who was educated partly in his native Greece and was the founding director of two national research centers at USC: the National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center (ERC) on Integrated Media Systems and the Department of Defense Center on Communications Signal Processing. He has been a driving force behind USC’s expanding online education programs, which have the strong support of the board’s roughly 55 members, as well as significant faculty buy-in.

“Institutions will have to decide what they want to be in the future,” he said in response to a query about the direction of the institution’s online programs, which serve only graduate students, charge the same tuition as on-campus programs, and require that students meet the same admissions standards as their on-campus peers. “You must have an internal debate. How would you like to picture the institution in the future, based on everything you know today?”

His advice to the boards of other institutions is simple: Stick to your principles and have a viable business model. “What is the mission of your institution?” he asked, and then answered it himself. “We want to be a key player in the area of lifelong learning.”

Southern New Hampshire University

Residential and Online Undergraduate and Graduate Programs

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which boasts the fastest-growing online education program in the country, was reaching out to students beyond the usual boundaries long before the Internet made it even easier to do so. The institution, when it was still New Hampshire College, always had a strong continuing education program, as well as a relationship with the U.S. Navy that brought many veterans within the college’s orbit.

But, in the last five years, SNHU’s online enrollment has grown from several hundred students to over 23,000; revenues in that time have gone from less than $30 million to $121 million in 2012, with a goal of $200 million for the coming year. The institution’s “traditional” online operation, the College of Online and Continuing Education, operates out of a separate location from the brick-and-mortar campus (which enrolls about 2,000 students) and offers four-year degrees for about $38,000.

Its latest innovation, called College for America (CFA), will launch in January 2013, offering a two-year degree for $5,000 and a competency-based model (120 competencies and three task levels) that holds great appeal for older and returning students. Equally important as the sticker price for those students is that the CFA is the first program to be approved by regional accreditors and the first program to go before the Education Department for Title IV approval, according to SNHU President Paul LeBlanc.

That means that, should the program win Title IV approval, CFA students would become eligible for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants. For now, the CFA program will be working with employers such as Federal Express and the city of Memphis, Tennessee, which will enroll employees in the program. The public will continue to have access to the traditional online program.

Board Chair Robert DeColfmacker, now in his sixth year on SNHU’s board, expressed great enthusiasm for the new program, which has the whole board’s backing.

“We are a very engaged and strategic board, engaged at the right level,” he said of their involvement in this latest endeavor, for which they have high hopes. “But we also recognize that nothing is without risk.”

LeBlanc has enjoyed that support since he assumed the presidency nine years ago, and he has watched the university’s on-campus program grow as its online programs have taken flight—a process that has involved trial and error and will probably continue to do so for some time to come.

“The board’s role was to recognize the need for investment and patience,” said LeBlanc. “There’s a level of trust and tolerance. They allowed me to make mistakes. Because doing this work means getting it wrong before getting it right.”

Western Governors University

All Online Programs

Now in its 15th year, Western Governors University (WGU) was one of the first online institutions, as well as one of the first to rely on a competency-based learning model, one that, in Jim Geringer’s words, “holds learning constant and lets time vary.”

Geringer was one of the founders of WGU while he was governor of Wyoming and is currently its board chair, as well as chair of AGB’s board. Active in all 50 states, WGU boasts enrollment of more than 35,000 students. Students must pass an admissions test, but there is no minimum high-school GPA or standardized test score required. Geringer’s mantra might well be: expanding access, improving delivery, reducing costs. And in fact, WGU’s tuition of $5,800 has gone up only $200 in the last six years.

“We’re growing at 30 percent a year, and we’re not even beginning to tap the potential out there,” he said. That potential comes, in large part, from students whose needs are not being met by bricks-and-mortar institutions. A majority of WGU’s students are underserved, with ethnic minorities, people of low income, those living in rural areas, and first-generation college students making up 74 percent of the student body. The average student age is 36, and two-thirds of students work full time. In comparing WGU to traditional colleges, Geringer said, “Your goal and ours are the same: increase availability and access, and better the standing of people in society.”

The university is working furiously to achieve those goals, offering more than 50 undergraduate, graduate, and post-baccalaureate degree programs in vital workforce areas, including business, information technology, K–12 teacher education, and the health professions. Student concentrations are particularly high in California, Utah, Texas, Indiana, Georgia, and Florida, and all students are assigned mentors.

The prospect of returning to school can be daunting for older learners, Geringer said, but WGU’s emphasis on competency-based learning—which allows students to apply skills and knowledge they have already acquired and which they must demonstrate through assessments—can help ease the way. “What we try to stress is that knowledge you can demonstrate, regardless of the source, is more important than where you go to an institution,” he said.

To other boards, Geringer offers a caution about confusing the delivery of distance education with education itself. “This isn’t just technology. It’s enabled by technology,” he said. “In many ways, we’re helping reengineer higher education using technology as a tool.”

Coastline Community College

A Public Institution Approach

In October 2012, California’s Coastline Community College announced an innovative partnership that will allow its students to enroll in out-of-state four-year institutions. Scheduled to launch in spring 2013, Coastline students will have new, online, path-to-degree options with the University of Massachusetts Online, Penn State University’s World Campus, and the University of Illinois in Springfield. Supported in part with a grant from the Gates Foundation, one unique aspect of this partnership is that Coastline students in California will not pay out-of-state tuition rates for their courses from UMass, Penn State, or Illinois. Although the Coastline partnership does not involve MOOCs, it may provide a model for other efforts, particularly among public institutions and community colleges, to offer students high-quality courses with a lower overall cost for a bachelor’s degree.



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