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When the coronavirus forced colleges and universities to move most instruction online or remote, many rural institutions did not have the resources or bandwidth to do this efficiently and effectively. As a result, research shows that these institutions and their students continue to struggle more from the pandemic’s effects than their more urban counterparts.

Historically, rural students have been underrepresented in college completion rates. Today, the pandemic’s significant negative impacts on rural employment, life satisfaction, mental health and economic opportunity have made it even harder for these students to achieve their educational goals. Similarly, COVID-19’s effects on rural colleges and surrounding communities have stressed the finances of many institutions, with revenue losses at times representing nearly 10 percent of institutions’ total budget. The current cost structure of rural higher education simply can’t support ongoing declines in student numbers because too many institutions are dependent on enrollment for too much of their revenue.

With students from low-income, rural backgrounds having fewer local options for continuing their education, the smart use of technology becomes essential in building more equitable futures for all. One major tool for boosting opportunities for rural students has been the development of platforms that enable colleges and universities to efficiently establish inter-institutional collaboration and credit transfers. And as noted by the Aspen Institute, “For colleges and universities to fully foster social mobility and develop America’s talent, successful transfer is critical, especially for the more than 8.7 million students enrolled nationally in community colleges.”

Facilitating Credit Transfers in Challenging Rural Conditions

New online course- and program-sharing platforms are helping rural institutions foster this social mobility. For example, inter-institutional collaboration technology, developed by Quottly, is helping Montana’s colleges and universities share their strengths with other institutions around the state. As a result, they can now collectively provide place-bound Montana students in small communities with a full array of courses and programs.

Made up of 16 campuses divided among six four-year and 10 two-year institutions, the Montana University System faces the daunting challenge of serving approximately 40,000 students over 147,000 square miles. Quottly’s configurable digital solutions, however, are helping Montana to scale the state’s postsecondary programs and improve educational access in rural communities across the system.

The MUS is now able to align course discovery and registration by combining class schedules, transfer rules, the student information system and one-click registration. Tapping into the unique offerings of each campus, the platform has also allowed Montana’s public colleges and universities to offer courses to new cohorts of students, including adult learners and career-oriented students, across a full range of programs.

A similar partnership with the Idaho State Board of Education is enabling the state to address student needs during and beyond the pandemic. Although Idaho’s eight public institutions already offered a rich portfolio of fully online courses and programs, the pandemic helped to spur interest in creating a statewide digital campus that could expand course and program offerings for all Idahoans.

A comprehensive, easy-to-navigate platform for enrolling in online courses was key to improving access to learning opportunities across Idaho’s public colleges and universities. The Online Idaho website facilitates course discovery and transfers for students seeking online learning opportunities. Student information system integration with Idaho’s various computing ecosystems also ensures that program management and reporting functions enabled by the platform effectively complement or, even, improve current administrative practices.

For institutions in states like Montana and Idaho, the potential of course- and program-sharing technologies is proving impactful. Their university systems are creating shared programs, certificates and microcredentials that tap into the unique strengths and collaborative potential of public institutions. They are reducing administrative headaches via streamlined mapping of transfer equivalencies and further alleviating hurdles that students face around credit transfers, course enrollment and progress toward graduation.

Four Must-Haves When Considering Course and Program Sharing Platforms

This is an opportune time for universities to build models for credit transfer collaboration and cement their position as leaders in this new and challenging era of higher education. In order to lower barriers to transfer student success, institutions should consider four questions:

  1. Single Entry -- Can students search, discover and register for transferable classes through a single entry point?
  2. Visibility -- Can students easily find and explore programs, requirements and certificates across schools?
  3. Streamlined transfers -- Can students access search, creation and approval for automated and streamlined course equivalency and articulation?
  4. Dashboards -- Are students provided with individual dashboards for scheduling courses and tracking their progress towards a credential or degree, based on their unique pathway?

To learn more about the Idaho and Montana programs as well as the technology used at the California Virtual Campus, register for a free webinar on Thursday, Sept. 23, at 2 p.m. Eastern. Academic officers at the California Virtual Campus, Idaho State Board of Education and Montana University System will share how they used inter-institutional course and program sharing to scale their offerings and increase student success.

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