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Many private nonprofit colleges, especially those that focus on liberal arts, haven’t jumped on the bandwagon of credit-bearing online courses and programs. While individual digital learning adherents have been experimenting on many such campuses, most private institutions resist transforming their academic culture or embracing technology as a catch-all solution to expanding enrollment or remaking their instructional models.

But more recently, some private institutions have begun to see the value of online education for helping students stay on track to graduate. Course sharing among those institutions can help students who want to take specialized courses that aren’t offered at their home institutions or conflict with their tight schedules.

Expanding efforts currently underway in several states, the Council of Independent Colleges has launched the Online Course Sharing Consortium to help more of its 650-plus member institutions achieve those goals. The organization has partnered with College Consortium, a company that offers institutions an online course-sharing platform and services like transferring academic credit and disbursing revenue. Students at participating institutions can enroll in courses at other participating institutions while the easing administrative hassles such arrangements often cause.

A handful of CIC institutions have already signed agreements to participate in the consortium, while more than 60 others are “actively in conversation” and likely to enter the consortium soon, according to CIC president Richard Ekman.

The CIC consortium was inspired by ongoing efforts within private college and university associations in Texas and North Carolina, partnered with College Consortium, to share online courses and streamline transfer pipelines from community colleges to four-year institutions.

In talking with leaders working on those efforts, Ekman identified a key issue: if an institution couldn’t offer a course that a student needed in order to graduate on time, that student would instead enroll in a course at a local community college or an online course at a four-year institution elsewhere.

“We thought, ‘This is crazy,’” Ekman said. “We should keep this in the family of institutions that have the same educational philosophy that all of us at CIC do.”

With demand for online education growing and several big players gobbling up hundreds of thousands of online enrollments, CIC member institutions have to get creative to stay afloat in the competitive marketplace, according to Bob Atkins, CEO of Gray Associates, a consulting firm that works on education and technology issues.

“It is gonna be increasingly difficult to play with these gorillas,” like Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University, Atkins said of private institutions with huge and growing online enrollments. “I think this is a very important first step toward creating a scaled online capability across these colleges so they can play in that space, which is only going to grow.”

Previous efforts along these lines haven’t been entirely successful. In 2014 the online program management company 2U shuttered an attempt to pool undergraduate online courses among highly selective institutions after several participants abandoned the partnership citing a variety of faculty frustrations. Faculty members at six liberal arts colleges in the Midwest also rejected the possibility of creating online courses for expanding access to students across several institutions.

Ekman hopes anyone skeptical of the CIC's program will see the immediate benefits rather than getting bogged down in longer-term concerns about, for instance, institutions cutting academic programs and instead relying on other institutions to fill gaps. “Given the culture of our colleges, where the faculty are heavily invested in their teaching, most institutions are going to be reluctant to do that,” Ekman said.

How the Platform Works

College Consortium, founded in 2016 and based in Austin, Tex., currently works with 160 institutions -- a mix of public and private, with more of the latter, according to Joshua Pierce, the company’s founder and CEO.

The company’s platform allows students at their home institution to easily enroll in a course from another institution -- known internally as the “teaching institution” -- without dealing with transcripts from multiple institutions or figuring out which institution should receive payment.

College Consortium’s team passes grades from the teaching institution to the student’s home institution where they can be placed directly on the student’s transcript, and its electronic network moves the relevant portion of the student's tuition dollars from the home institution to the teaching institution. The company also helps coordinate academic calendars and quality reviews for courses shared across institutions. Students can apply their financial aid at their home institution to courses from teaching institutions.

Institutions that partner with College Consortium choose which courses they want to place on the platform during a given semester, and with which institutions they’ll partner to send or accept students. The platform hosts face-to-face and online courses alike, though “the vast majority” are fully online courses, according to Pierce. Often, institutions will post courses that have available capacity, hoping that students from other institutions will fill empty seats.

“The consortial models have been around for a long time -- we didn’t create it,” Pierce said. “What’s required is somebody has to sit in the middle and make sure that enrollment request gets across.”

Home institutions set the price students pay for courses offered on the platform; the current average is approximately $1,300 per course, according to Pierce. Teaching institutions set the “registration fee” home institutions pay per enrollment to offer their courses; the current average fee is $800. College Consortium gets 25 percent per enrollment of the teaching institution’s registration fee. In a scenario with average costs, the home institution charges the student $1,300 for one course, sending $800 to the teaching institution, which pockets $600 and sends the remaining $200 to College Consortium.

“The [home] college there is actually making new revenue that they otherwise can’t make because the class is full or not at the right time,” Pierce said. “The [teaching] college on the other side has already invested in online, so they’re monetizing that.”

Some institutions place courses from College Consortium directly in their registration modules and printed course catalogs, while others link to the company’s portal.

Pierce sees private institutions as the ideal client for the company’s services because of their culture of collaboration.

“The private independents don’t have some big state system to go to, they don’t have other legislative priorities that are weighing down on them,” Pierce said. “They’re also looking at the next decade going, ‘How do we re-engineer ourselves to survive?’”

How the CIC Consortium Works

Institutions in the consortium can take a variety of approaches to sharing courses and even programs, according to a CIC guide that’s been offered to member institutions. Courses from teaching institutions can help students fulfill graduation requirements, explore specialized interests, recover quickly from low grades and/or maintain academic eligibility for athletics. Institutions can use courses from teaching institutions to augment existing academic programs or test the market viability of new ones. Teaching institutions can use the partnership to bolster enrollment for courses with available capacity.

Earlier this year, the Council of Independent Colleges negotiated with College Consortium a discount payment package, compared with the company’s non-CIC institutional partnerships, for institutions that want to participate in the council’s course-sharing consortium.

In addition to the fees paid to teaching institutions for each enrollment, each CIC institution that wants to participate in the course-sharing arrangement pays College Consortium an annual membership fee of $1,000, compared with a $5,000 fee for College Consortium partners outside the CIC initiative. Institutions that want to offer their courses to students at other institutions also pay an annual fee of $2,000, compared with a $2,500 fee for College Consortium partners outside the CIC initiative.

Students at home institutions either pay for courses from the consortium as part of their full-time tuition cost or as an overload fee. “If this works out well, a college will be able to cover its fees by just a small number of enrollments,” Ekman said.

Ekman thinks private institutions will remain protective of their courses, tapping into the consortium mainly to resolve students' concerns and boost enrollment.

“Is the ideal end product one course on each subject from one professor? I don’t think so,” Ekman said. “I think some diversity of points of view of the way subject matters are covered is a good thing.”

A Case Study

Schreiner University in Texas has worked with College Consortium for several years, primarily as a home institution sending students to other institutions in its network. Schreiner has now joined the CIC’s consortium, which allows the institutions to share courses with other institutions without having to formulate individual agreements each time a new partnership is proposed, according to Diana Comuzzie, Schreiner’s provost and vice president of academic affairs.

“We’ve made a little bit of money, not a lot,” Comuzzie said. “We would like to make more off of this engagement as more of a teaching member rather than a sending member. But it has worked very well for us, for helping students stay on track.”

The institution tends to buy courses from teaching institutions “where we’ve had good experiences,” Comuzzie said. Her team identifies courses with a high percentage of withdrawals and makes sure that students who need those courses to complete a sequence have ample opportunities to retake it online and replace their grade.

In many cases, the institution pays more to offer an online course from another institution than a student pays to enroll. But, according to Comuzzie, if that student ends up graduating faster as a result, the trade-off can be worthwhile.

“If I had one student who said I need this oddball class, there’s no reason why we couldn’t make that happen for that one student,” Comuzzie said.

When faculty members aren’t willing to change their teaching approach in order for the institution to offer online courses to other institutions, Comuzzie points to the potential for enrolling more students, which tends to get them on board, she said.

The institution has also used the consortium as a trial run for a potential criminal justice program after some students expressed interest. Enough students enrolled in the online courses offered in that discipline that Schreiner is now working on a criminal justice program of its own, Comuzzie said.

Final Thoughts

Much of the initiative’s success -- and its popularity among faculty members -- will depend on the quality of the courses offered, according to Leah Matthews, executive director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

“If this isn’t done well (and with proper scrutiny of consortia agreements by those with appropriate academic qualifications), then there is the potential risk of diminishing quality and rigor,” Matthews wrote in an email.

Observers of online education will be eager to gauge the reaction and long-term success of the program.

“I think it’s really important that small institutions find a way to band together because on their own they’re not big enough to really be a player online,” Atkins said. “Once you go online, it’s about scale online. Being a single institution at that scale is different. In that context, these folks getting together makes a lot of sense.”

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