In-Person Bachelor's and Online Master's -- at the Same Time

Bachelor's students at Holy Cross can enroll simultaneously in a data science master's program at Notre Dame. Administrators see such collaborations as integral to the future of traditional colleges.

April 17, 2019

The University of Notre Dame in Indiana in fall 2016 started its first fully online degree program, a master’s in data science. The program, with content shaped in collaboration with AT&T and supported by the online learning platform Extension Engine, was designed for working professionals looking to advance or reshape their careers. The first cohort of close to 30 students will graduate next month.

The College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, meanwhile, offers no online programs of its own, nor any degrees beyond the baccalaureate. But students in its interdisciplinary statistics program, as well as other students who have taken math or statistics courses, could benefit long-term from studying data science, according to Margaret Freije, provost and dean at Holy Cross.

A new partnership between the two Roman Catholic institutions aims to align those complementary goals. Beginning this fall, undergraduate students at Holy Cross will be able to enroll in the Notre Dame online program during their senior year. Accepted students will pay their regular installment of Holy Cross tuition to finish their bachelor’s degree requirements as well as the first handful of Notre Dame online courses. Once they’ve graduated from Holy Cross, they can pay tuition for the remaining Notre Dame courses.

As a result, Notre Dame taps in to a pipeline of talented students, and Holy Cross boasts an offering designed to connect its liberal arts graduates with critical technical skills.

“We wanted to get access to talented students who were thinking in the ways that we were most looking for -- great fundamental skills, great ethical insights,” said Elliott Visconsi, associate provost and chief academic digital officer at Notre Dame.

Traditional colleges are increasingly looking to each other for support amid a dispiriting trend of closures, acquisitions and mergers. Institutions have long offered undergraduate students opportunities to slide into master’s programs, though most of those partnerships have been on ground only. Dozens of small colleges, meanwhile, have begun sharing courses with the help of College Consortium, a tech company that helps institutions fill curriculum gaps and share resources.

Crafting a Partnership

The Holy Cross-Notre Dame collaboration took two and a half years to come together, according to Visconsi. Program directors and professors at both institutions communicated to ensure that required courses in the two programs don’t duplicate each other and that course sequencing is seamless. Academic advisers at Holy Cross will notify students early on about the Notre Dame program and steer them toward prerequisites that will help with admission.

Those discussions led to some complicated nuances. Students in one particular Holy Cross course earn graduate credit from Notre Dame upon completion as well. In another Holy Cross course, students can take a final exam to simultaneously earn graduate credit.

The sticker price for the Notre Dame program is $50,000. Holy Cross students who enroll will have completed 12 of the graduate program's 30 credits by the time they get their bachelor’s degree, at no additional cost beyond Holy Cross tuition. The cost of the remaining 18 Notre Dame credits is a prorated amount of the total cost of the program.

That arrangement would seem to disadvantage Notre Dame, which doesn’t earn revenue on more than a third of each student's enrollment. But Visconsi said the trade-off is worthwhile.

“When you buy leads in the marketplace, and you buy ads, it costs money,” Visconsi said. “This is a way for us to identify students through a trusted partner instead of through traditional advertising.”

Conversations about more formal revenue sharing could come up once the partnership grows, according to Freije. “But essentially what’s going on is I have committed as provost that I will pay for them to take two courses at Notre Dame, and Notre Dame has committed they will work with us to make sure that our curriculum covers two other courses,” she said.

The current crop of data science master’s students at Notre Dame doesn’t include any Holy Cross graduates, Visconsi said. Between two and five Holy Cross students will be admitted to the Notre Dame program this fall, with more to follow in future years. Close to 750 of Holy Cross' 3,000 students have taken courses that might put them on a track to a data science program, according to a spokesperson for the university.

Stronger Together?

Administrators at the two religious institutions pointed to their shared philosophical mission of providing a strong liberal arts education as a foundation for adapting to life postcollege. Freije early on also admired Notre Dame’s commitment to hybrid programs with both synchronous and asynchronous components, rather than cutting out all face-to-face interaction.

Georgia Nugent, president emerita of Kenyon College and a close observer of innovation in liberal arts college, compared this partnership to small colleges’ dalliances with coding academies. “It sounds very promising, melding the residential liberal arts undergraduate experience with an advanced degree in a field that can appropriately and successfully be offered via the online medium,” she said.

Visconsi has been in talks with provosts at four other liberal arts colleges about establishing partnerships similar to the one with Holy Cross. He’s also exploring other ways to partner with institutions on creating new online or hybrid programs. He believes interinstitutional collaboration is increasingly crucial.

“Rather than thinking about higher ed as a zero-sum game where some small group of competitors acquire market share, institutions have important roles to play in their market and their segments,” Visconsi said. “We would like to see as much pluralism and diversity in the institutional landscape as possible.”


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