Distance Ed Pioneer Reassesses Itself

Confronting new competitors, Central Michigan U. looks ahead to another 35 years of training adult learners.
May 3, 2006

“People are very devoted to our campus,” says Terry Rawls, interim vice president and executive director of professional education at Central Michigan University, “but I’m embarrassed to say that most have never been to a Chippewa football game.”

That’s because -- long before for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix, Strayer University and Capella University made Internet-based education a widespread phenomenon -- the institution has been churning out a variety of long distance degrees for individuals who live nowhere near Michigan. The university, located in Mt. Pleasant, smack dab in the middle of the state, has awarded about 60,000 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees through its distance learning program since 1971, and about 7,000 students now enroll in distance learning courses during any given term, according to the university. Central has 60 satellite campuses total, with a majority of sites in Michigan, Georgia, Virginia and Ontario. 

About 10 percent of regular fulltime instructors from the Central Michigan campus teach both online and satellite courses. A total of over 200 faculty and staff members administer the distance education programs. New instructors must pass a strict review by faculty members from the main campus in order to be hired. Of all institutions in the country, Central is the second largest granter of master’s of business degrees to African Americans.

Administrators say that one of the state’s top universities -- either the University of Michigan or Michigan State -- will soon partner with Central on a distance-based business program, thanks to its strong and solid history. Likewise, leading giants in the distance education field, including Phoenix, have turned to the relatively small Midwestern campus for advice.

But as more institutions -- publics, privates and for-profits -- get into the arena that Central first started researching in the early 1970s, administrators at the university are trying to cope with the competition. Like many other pioneering distance education institutions, including the University of Maryland University College, the institution is trying to figure out how to position itself for growth, while remaining focused on offering high quality education.

Phoenix, in particular, has recently opened several campuses in Michigan, where Central currently has 14 satellites. There has been concern among administrators at Central Michigan that enrollment growth would wane, which hasn’t happened yet.

“It’s difficult for a school like CMU to say that they’re a leader in this field in the Midwest when you’ve got all kinds of Phoenixes popping up,” says Charles Baker-Clark, a director with the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education, who notes that one Phoenix campus has recently opened in his hometown of Grand Rapids. “As a business, these kinds of shops can be much more adaptable than a traditional university.”

For-profits aren’t the only competition. Rawls says that many smaller public universities have created programs similar to Central’s in various regions of the country. “It’s the state schools that are trying to do what we’ve been doing for 35 years now. Everybody is having problems with state appropriations,” he says. “So more people are saying, ‘Let’s reach out to adult learners to make some money.’ ”

Alan Knox, an education policy expert with the University of Wisconsin at Madison, cautions that institutions that think of distance learning as a money-making venture would be wise to explore failures like Columbia University, which spent millions of dollars on a widely heralded distance education program that failed to take off. “When you look at the cost-benefit ratio, some assume that distance learning will be profitable,” says Knox. “But in actuality, it is not hugely different if you ignore the costs of building and operating bricks and mortar campuses.”

Rawls also says that Central Michigan is trying to be proactive on the recruitment and retention front. Not an easy task, considering the fact that the off-campus division of the university is limited in its budget abilities to spend money on marketing. Some for-profits spend up to 25 percent of their revenue on glossy marketing campaigns that have nationwide appeal. “There’s no way that we can afford to play that game,” says Rawls, even though his division is self-supporting and provided about $5 million in profits back to the Mt. Pleasant campus over the past year.

The off-campus programs, to date, have largely depended on word-of-mouth advertising, but administrators are currently upping their e-marketing efforts and working with Web-based companies on how to optimize keyword searches.

Administrators, too, have reached out to Eduventures, a consulting firm that focuses on the education industry, to help the institution communicate its strengths and learn from its weaknesses. That firm has suggested that Central focus on efforts that help them stand out from other institutions.

“Why are we successful?” asks Rawls. “Because we have been doing it longer than most and we are as good as or better than anyone in the country.”

In Rawls's book, being “good” means implementing programs that work for adult learners, who make up the majority of consumer of Central’s distance learning programs. The university offers a variety of courses to meet the divergent needs of individuals, including Web-based programs as well as traditional distance learning programs where a student can take evening courses at a Central campus -- in, for instance, Hawaii. In Atlanta alone, Central has 12 learning centers, which makes it easier for commuters to not have to deal with as much traffic, says Rawls.

“Our goal is to deliver the same academic experience in terms of educational quality in both on- and off- campus efforts,” says Cheri DeClercq, associate director of enrollment management for Central’s off-campus programs.

DeClercq also says that Central is competitive in terms of pricing. For most distance learning programs offered by the institution, the cost is $345 per credit hour, whether the classes are offered online or at satellite campuses. Many for-profit institutions charge substantially more for online courses than they do for in-person courses because they tend to be more attractive to students who need flexible scheduling.

Rawls also hopes to expand the number of online offerings vastly in the short term. About 15 percent of the classes currently offered in the off-campus programs are online, and he wants to be more competitive with other institutions on this front. “Central and many other institutions around the country are trying to respond to the for-profit market by embracing technology in ways that help students,” says Knox.

Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education and an expert on distance education, says that Central should be careful what programs can and should be offered online and what needs to be done in person. Rawls says he realizes that one of the strongest aspects of the program to date has been the one-on-one interaction that Central has been able to offer thousands of students at satellite campuses.

Central Michigan’s Board of Trustees has kept a watchful eye over the growth and development of the off-campus programs. In the early part of this decade, they explored a plan to largely expand the off-campus program to try to create more funds. They determined that accreditation and other concerns put the idea out of reach at that time.

“We are such a different and unique beast,” says Rawls. He sees Central going one of two routes over the next 35 years. “We could have a damned good extended learning program in Michigan because of our infrastructure here already and really focus on that,” he says. “Or we could have a worldwide online operation, leveraging on our face-to-face presences already.”

He seems to favor a combination of the two. 


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