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Responding to expanding technology and a faltering economy, higher education is serving up a wide array of educational choices. Who ordered the two-year, no-frills degree?

Catalyst for Change - The Economic Downturn Reshapes Higher Education

By Margo Vanover Porter 

*Despite the recession, private-college students returning to campus last fall would have noticed only marginal changes, says David L. Warren, president, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Washington, D.C. “These may have included slightly larger classes, fewer course sections, and longer waits in administrative offices,” he says. “There may be slightly fewer campus-sponsored events. The grass may have been mowed less often, and free laundry service suspended.”

Fortunately, he says, the student educational experience remains intact. “We are not at the point where students need to worry that the value of their educational experience is being cut. Once the recession passes, the vast majority of institutions will re-emerge stronger than ever, bringing with them new practices in sustainability and efficiency.”

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According to Warren, the faltering economy has forced higher education to undergo a significant evolutionary shift, with numerous pockets of campus innovation and experimentation emerging. “The financial jolt of the credit crunch and recession, along with anticipated dramatic shifts in student demographics, is accelerating the pace at which institutions are exploring new financial and educational delivery models,” he says. “In the past year, we have seen a jump in three-year bachelor's degree programs, so-called no-frills satellite campuses, and academic partnerships between four-year private colleges and local community colleges. These efforts are being watched very closely by presidents and trustees across the nation.”

Martin Van Der Werf, former director, Chronicle Research Services, Washington, D.C., agrees that the way in which education is delivered, what students learn, and how students experience college are all shifting. But, he believes the changes are too broad and too fundamental to attribute to current economic conditions. 

“There is a rethinking of the way education is being delivered,” he says, “but I don't know if the financial crisis could be isolated as a single factor producing these changes. The financial crisis is encouraging students and families to question what they were already questioning, such as the delivery model, the cost of college, and the difficulty in obtaining a degree. The recession is merely accentuating what people were already thinking.”

Responding to the Recession

One institution that is responding to the recession by tweaking the educational delivery paradigm is Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. Last year, the institution launched a pilot of its SNHU Advantage Program, which allows students to earn an associate degree in liberal arts in two years and then decide if they want to continue working toward a bachelor's degree.

“We raised the question, 'Would there be a market or need for the core academic program stripped of all of the things that add cost, such as climbing walls, food courts, and expensive dorms?'” says President Paul LeBlanc. “The model we envisioned was a program for students who live at home and need to work—as so many of our students do—and could be offered at one of our satellite centers, which have unused capacity during the day.

“We were able to cut about 60 percent of the cost for the first two years of an undergraduate degree,” he continues. “Students get the core education experience for $10,000 a year, versus the normal tuition of $25,000. Then they can move into the regular campus-based undergraduate program or they can take those credits and transfer elsewhere if they are looking for a lower-cost alternative.”

In its second year, the program has 67 students who are looking for a no-frills college education with a price tag to match. The program is not for everybody, LeBlanc says. “For lots of kids, the holistic experience of being on campus is an important part of the overall education.”

The program has been covered in the Chronicle of Higher Education and by CBS Evening News, but LeBlanc says visiting reporters often have a predetermined story angle in mind, which usually follows the lines of “Isn't it a shame that economic conditions are depriving these poor kids of the full college experience?” Then the reporters actually talk to students enrolled in the program, who say, “You know what? That other stuff is not important to me. I need to focus on my education. I love the fact that the classes are in the morning because I have a job in the afternoon. I like living at home. This works, and it saves me a lot of money.”

Another program at SNHU designed to make education more accessible during the economic downturn is the Alumni Assistance Program, which encourages out-of-work alumni to use their free time productively by signing up for half-price graduate courses. Students, who must meet regular graduate admissions requirements, may take up to four courses at the discounted rate. About 20 people are currently enrolled.

“We see this as a service to alumni,” LeBlanc says. “People who are out of work don't necessarily have the assets to sign up for additional courses.”

Fast-Forwarding Through College

Adapt and Deliver

Adaptability is the hallmark of a higher education institution that can stay ahead of the curve in education delivery, according to Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director, NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, Washington, D.C.

She recalls several years ago when so-called “helicopter parents” were disrupting higher education institutions with their constant hovering. While some educators merely lamented the problem, others took action. “They adapted,” she explains. Very early on, these officials said, 'Helicopter parents aren't going away, so we're going to develop special orientations for them. We're going to create special parent advisory boards. We're going to guide parents on how they can connect with their students and still allow them to mature.'

“That's one of the hallmarks,” she continues. “When you realize something has changed, you don't continue to try to do the things the way you have always done. You change too.”

Several years ago Dungy advised faculty members to incorporate elements of video games into their classrooms to capture students' attention instead of sticking with the standard lecture. Many professors responded with, “We're not in the entertainment business. We're faculty.”

Dungy disagreed, saying, “Either you're going to be in the entertainment business or you won't have any students.”

Deborah M. DiCroce, president, Tidewater Community College, Norfolk, Virginia, attributes part of her institution's phenomenal growth—enrollment was up 20 percent last fall—to its ability to adapt to the needs of the business marketplace. “We have to be nimble and we have to be willing to work hand in hand with industry,” she says. “It is not academe telling business what it needs.  In many respects, it's just the opposite.”

She points out that institutions must stay flexible in curriculum and program development, particularly when it comes to career and technical fields. “I've been in this business for 25-plus years, and I can remember as a young dean when we put a program together, we never thought about it requiring retooling. We can't operate like that today. We have to assume on the front end that most of the programming we put in place has a shelf life.”

Other institutions are experimenting with what works in educational delivery. For example, Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana, is of one of many institutions to offer a degree-in-three program.

“In our Fast Forward program, students put in extra online coursework in the two summers after their first and second years,” says Executive Vice President David McFadden. “The consequence of that summer course schedule is that their regular academic year is the same as that of any other student. They are not taking an academic overload. They are able to participate in athletics and extracurricular activities, music, theater, and those sorts of things. In some sense, we simply allow them to slice a year off their program, rather than try to compress it or condense it.”

To qualify for the program, students must have a two-score SAT of 1,100 or better and graduate in the top quarter of their high school class. “We're looking for strong, motivated students,” McFadden says. “These students need to have a sense when they enroll of what they want to do. They need to declare their major immediately, rather than in their sophomore year, for example, so we can make sure they get the courses they need when they need them.”

When launched in the fall of 2008, Fast Forward attracted 15 students out of an incoming class of 396. This year, 27 of the 426 freshmen signed up—or 6.5 percent. “We don't anticipate this program will replace a four-year degree at Manchester, but we wanted to offer this as an alternative,” McFadden says. “This program ends up saving students up to $25,000 in college costs. It also gets them into their first job or graduate school a year earlier.”

According to his calculations, the difference between this and a standard four-year program could easily be $50,000, between the additional earnings and cost savings. “We knew that affordability was an issue for parents and students,” McFadden says. “We also knew that some students see college as a means to an end. For those students, this program has a particular appeal. They can get through college in three years and get on with things.”

To further entice cost-conscious parents, the college has also introduced the Manchester Triple Guarantee, which makes three promises:

1. Financial aid for all full-time students and full tuition for academically strong, low-income students who live in Indiana. “This eliminates the concern of families who think, 'We can't afford a private education,'” McFadden says. “We say to them, 'Don't write us off. Every student will get financial aid.'”

2. Graduation within four years for all full-time students, or they pay no tuition for the credits needed to graduate in five years. “If you come to Manchester College, you can finish in four years,” McFadden says. “We guarantee it. And if you don't and there's something we've done to prevent you from graduating, we'll pay for those credits during your fifth year.”

3. A job or enrollment in graduate school within six months of graduation or return for a full year tuition-free. Although this guarantee has been in place for more than a decade, only two students have ever taken advantage of it—until this fall when four students came back through. “It's the economy,” McFadden says. “They were simply not able to find jobs. In this climate it's much, much more difficult.”

The director of career services works with each returning student to determine what skills he or she needs to acquire to become more competitive in the workplace. McFadden gives an example of one student who just came back. “After talking to him, we realized he needs an internship, rather than sitting in on more classes. He is enrolling in 9 to 12 hours of internship credit, and we will help place him in an internship. As a consequence, we believe he will be more employable.”

Immersed in Knowledge

“The challenge for us is to try to hold costs down and at the same time deliver a high-quality and very distinctive educational experience.”

Tom R. Taylor, Ball State University

To respond to a new generation of students with changing needs, Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, is focusing on immersive learning. “Students are digital natives now,” says Tom R. Taylor, vice president for enrollment, marketing, and communications. “They are accustomed to many different channels of getting information and interacting, instead of just face-to-face. Students expect to see emerging media infused into their education. They're not looking for a single mode of interacting. They are also beginning to look beyond the traditional rhythm of taking five courses a semester, going to class, having assignments, and coming back to class. They are looking for a more experiential model.”

Taylor explains that immersive learning melds content, skills, societal need, and student interests into a professional experience that results in a tangible product. “We work on real-world problems, with community and external partners, and try to have students live through experiences they will face later in their careers. What we find is that particularly bright, talented kids don't want to march into a classroom and sit and passively receive information. They want to be doers.”

At Ball State, immersive learning experiences usually:

  • Carry academic credit.
  • Engage participants in an active learning process that is student-driven but guided by a faculty mentor.
  • Produce a tangible outcome or product, such as a business plan, policy recommendation, book, play, or DVD.
  • Involve at least one team of students, often working on a project that is interdisciplinary in nature.
  • Include community partners and create an impact on the larger community as well as on the student participants.
  • Focus on learning outcomes.
  • Help students define a career path or make connections to a profession or industry.

One of Taylor's favorite examples of a successful immersive learning project involves a team of students who helped develop outreach activities to address childhood obesity in Indiana. Working with a marketing firm, a local hospital, and a supermarket chain, the students created a curriculum that was eventually rolled out to grade schools.

“It was a great project, and the partners were thrilled with the results,” Taylor says. “Every time I go to the grocery store, I see a poster of Peyton Manning with a group of young children and a whole promotion around making healthy choices when shopping. And down at the bottom of the poster, I also see the Ball State logo, which, of course, warms the cockles of my heart.”

At Ball State, students can also benefit from living/learning communities, which bring together first-year students with shared interests. The institution offers communities in a variety of areas, including nursing, business, international affairs, and emerging media. “Particularly in that first year, we find it helpful to have students view their living arrangements as a part of their learning experience,” Taylor says. “It's not, 'I go to class where I learn, and I go back to the dorm where I sleep.' It's all part of the learning experience.”

For example, students who reside in the emerging media living/learning community have access to editing labs and studios within their residence hall. “Those students can roll out of bed in the middle of the night and edit a video,” he says. “We have intentionally designed the spaces to have social gathering areas where students can work collaboratively.”

Taylor points out that these specialized programs, while enriching, are faculty intensive. “It has forced us to look very carefully at how we go about spending money and planning activities. Students and families are anxious about the cost of education, making cost more a part of the college search process. These are challenging times. The challenge for us is to try to hold costs down and at the same deliver a high-quality and very distinctive educational experience.

Technology Expands Options

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president, American Council on Education, Washington, D.C., believes that technology is driving many of the rapid changes in education delivery.

“The technological revolution is providing different options for delivering education, and students and schools are taking advantage of it,” he says. “It used to be that a university was a place where knowledge was located, and you went to college to take advantage of it. The Internet and World Wide Web make it possible for knowledge to be delivered across the globe. Delivering knowledge is less site-specific. Options students have today are certainly not the same as 20 years ago, and students 20 years hence will see even different educational opportunities.”

Deborah M. DiCroce, president, Tidewater Community College, Norfolk, Virginia, predicts continued growth in online classes because the delivery method satisfies student needs for convenience and instant accessibility. “I attribute it to the ATM mentality,” she says. “Students want it now, not when the bank window opens.”

LeBlanc concurs. Although SNHU has tightened purse strings in other areas, the institution is investing $3.7 million in online expansion. “We are adding new online programs, adding new staff, upgrading systems, and buying new leads from Web site aggregators. The new systems will affect the whole university, but the real focus is to build capacity for this rapidly growing online business, which tends to be a very good revenue generator for us and offsets some of the challenges of the traditional undergraduate program expense.”

He adds that online learning has changed the student and faculty experience. “Ten years ago we asked of online education, 'How can we make this experience closer to the classroom experience. How can we make it as good?' Now we've flipped the question. The online experience is getting so much better, so much faster, the question we ask is, 'How can we take all the great stuff that is happening in the well-designed online classroom and bring it back to the traditional classroom?' That's a fundamental shift.”

More Questions Than Answers

The shift taking place in education delivery leaves many unanswered questions, according to David Warren. “While the marketplace is demanding innovation, it's unclear yet which ideas will be evolutionary winners or losers,” he says. “Will the recession and increased marketing efforts generate greater consumer demand? It's quite possible, but still unknown. The convenience of online courses is also fueling growth, with enrollments increasing quickly. However, at what point will market demand top out? What online-classroom hybrid models will appeal most to consumers? These are important questions with yet unknown answers.”

Meanwhile, Warren foresees acceleration in the number, breadth, and depth of cost-sharing academic and administrative partnerships that institutions have quietly been developing.

“The bottom line is that college and university leaders nationwide agree that higher education needs the kind of innovation and experimentation that we are seeing,” he says. “Accordingly, the future promises more diversity in the educational delivery models available to students, including those at traditional four-year private colleges and universities. There will be no one-size-fits-all model. What succeeds will vary institution by institution, depending on each college's unique mix of mission, student population, and local marketplace conditions.”

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.