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Business Officer Magazine
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Enrollment Soars With Online Associate Degrees

Spotlight: Small Institutions, from "Business Briefs" department in the April 2011 issue of Business Officer

By Paul Marion

Tiffin University (TU), a small private university in Tiffin, Ohio, is quite dependent on tuition income to support its annual operating budget. Clearly, growing our enrollment is important for the financial health of our institution. While enrollment numbers have increased steadily in recent years at our main campus in Tiffin and at centers at several other Ohio locations, growth has been even more positive in the graduate and undergraduate programs that we offer in the distance learning format.

Working with a private company to fund and develop online courses specifically for associate degrees, we've realized significant increases in our online presence. We now offer three associate's degrees (in business administration, criminal justice, and arts in general studies). Each degree requires successful completion of 61 semester hours—20 three-hour courses plus a one-hour freshman seminar.

Divide and Conquer

Several years ago, Tiffin's senior leadership recognized an unfilled niche related to enrollment—providing the means for more students to earn associate's degrees. In fall 2007, only 19 students were enrolled in associate degree programs. We thought that a good way to expand that number was to offer a number of online associate's degrees that could be earned via online programming. We began discussions with an investor group about forming a partnership that would combine its financial resources with our educational expertise. The result was a joint venture with Altius Education Inc. to create Ivy Bridge College of Tiffin University (Ivy Bridge), launched in 2008 with 65 students participating.

TU is responsible for all aspects of the academic program, as well as admitting students, collecting tuition, distributing financial aid, and handling certain other functions that must be controlled by an accredited institution. Altius provided all of the start-up funding for marketing, staffing, and other expenses, which was critical in helping to increase the enrollment from 65 students to approximately 1,600 students in two years. This rapid enrollment growth would not have been possible if TU had used the very modest funding that would have been available through our regular institutional operating budget, rather than sharing net tuition with our service provider.

Coach to Completion

While Ivy Bridge is still too new to demonstrate firm graduation rates, our term-to-term persistence rate (approximately 85 percent) is higher than the industry average for students in associate's degree programs. We think individualized attention has a lot to do with this achievement. Each student is assigned an individual "success coach," who is a full-time staff member of Ivy Bridge College of Tiffin University. The coach serves as a single point of the online student's contact from application through graduation. These individuals interact with their students each week and provide help with personal issues as well as academic issues.

Most Ivy Bridge students plan to continue their education toward a bachelor's degree, and a number of four-year colleges and universities throughout the United States have entered into agreements to accept Ivy Bridge graduates who wish to transfer after earning their associate's degree. 

A partnership between a nonprofit university and a private investment firm is one model (read about other models in "Out There," a feature article in the March 2010 Business Officer) that may be beneficial for institutions that could make use of outside funding to rapidly grow enrollments in new or existing programs or create other revenue-producing ventures. So far, this model is working for Tiffin University.

SUBMITTED BY Paul Marion, president, Tiffin University, Tiffin, Ohio