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Business Officer Magazine
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Virtual Campus Drives Revenue and Retention

Spotlight: Community Colleges, from "Business Briefs" department in the August 2009 Business Officer

By George A. Franklin Jr.

From the outset, leaders at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), Pennsylvania, planned for our Virtual Campus to be financially self-sufficient. “Our efficiency and productivity had already been demonstrated by our evolving distance learning activities,” says Larry Adams, the campus vice president who oversees the online program.

Building on a program that served only 120 students but was already generating excess revenue, we launched the Virtual Campus on July 1, 2005. Since that time, it has become an entirely self-supporting fiscal entity. The growth rate is significant, and, as predicted, the program generates substantial revenue—$5 million to $6 million per year in recent years—that HACC's main campus has been able to transfer to its five other campuses.

Vision and Reality

We serve 21,000 degree-seeking students as well as 50,000 students in our noncredit workforce development and community education programs. The vision for the Virtual Campus is to offer an educational opportunity that students and faculty will rate as exceptional and other institutions will seek to model.

A number of factors have contributed to the program's growth and effectiveness:

  • Purposeful programming. High-quality, accessible academic programs have two purposes: (1) to provide credit and noncredit programs without geographic or scheduling constraints; and (2) to offer courses for students who opt for a combination of traditional and alternate delivery methods. All courses involve interaction with a faculty member and other students.
  • Broad buy-in. An 11-person distance learning task force began meeting in 2002 to develop recommendations for the program. Involvement of faculty, support staff, administrators, and technicians helped build internal support, while spreading the word to the community that online education would translate into more opportunities for everyone.

    That's not to say that we didn't have significant challenges in implementing the Virtual Campus model. We needed everyone to embrace the concept of a campus being something other than a physical location and to change the perception that online courses would be “stealing students” from traditional classrooms and thus threaten faculty employment. “While neither of these issues has been completely overcome,” says Adams, “neither has proved to be an insurmountable obstacle.”
  • Sufficient, highly-trained staff. The Virtual Campus employs 5 full-time administrators, 5 professional staff, and 1 full-time counselor, 21 full-time faculty who teach exclusively in the Virtual Campus, 23 adjunct faculty, and 68 other “shared” full-time, tenure-track faculty who teach at least one virtual course per semester. All must complete a 12-week Online Academy, during which they develop and present the first three chapters of their virtual courses.
  • Efficient enrollment management. We've received recognition for our work in keeping online waiting lists for full sections of popular courses so that students can be notified immediately by text message or e-mail when new sections open. This and other enrollment techniques have resulted in very high efficiency in scheduling. (For more information, go to Business Officer Plus and read "Enrollment Model Means Ongoing Monitoring.")
  • Comprehensive quality assessment. The Virtual Campus is the only part of the college with processes in place to assess every section offered online. Initially, courses are reviewed by their discipline's faculty before they are approved to go online. Twenty percent of the sections are also assessed by peer review each year.

Registering Results

Growth of our virtual education model has averaged 15–20 percent per year. The plan for 2009–10 calls for 5-10 percent growth, with collegewide enrollment growth estimated at 7 percent. We're finding that online courses are often the main attraction for students-so much so that, while we have no unique retention strategies, overall student retention is greatly aided by the distance learning program.

SUBMITTED BY George A. Franklin Jr., vice president of finance and college resources, Harrisburg Area Community College, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.