Unusual Model for an Online College

Seeing potential niche, Tiffin U., a private institution in Ohio, starts two-year distance education college, hoping to build transfer market.
May 1, 2008

There is no shortage of associate degree programs online, but private four-year colleges don't tend to run them.

This fall, Tiffin University is trying a new model for an online two-year degree program. The institution, which was founded in 1888, is launching an associate of arts degree in general studies as part of what it calls Ivy Bridge College, an online-only program that targets traditional-aged students who intend to transfer into four-year institutions once they're done. The program is unusual for being developed at a four-year private college, and also because of who it intends to enroll and what kind of degree the students will be earning.

"It’s really designed to fill a gap, we think, in the higher education system," said Paul Marion, Tiffin's president.

That gap -- which the university confirmed through market research -- constitutes several different kinds of students, he said, all of whom are recent high school graduates. There are the students who would have trouble financing an education at a four-year public or private institution, of course, or who would have to commute, give up a job to relocate or otherwise disrupt their lives to find a suitable college. Marion also identified students who are "not confident enough to go away to college, and might need those two years to sort of develop socially and competence-wise to be ready to attend a regular institution."

Also, he said, both students with disabilities and students who were home-schooled would find advantages in studying from home for the first two years of their college education.

Tiffin already offers a host of accredited online degree programs, some in addition to "seated" counterparts at the Tiffin, Ohio, campus. There's an online M.B.A. program in addition to one offered on campus, for example; the university also offers master's degrees in criminal justice and the humanities online, with another in education to be introduced soon. With plenty of experience ensuring that the quality of online programs are comparable to that of the in-class experience, Marion said, Tiffin has the resources to make Ivy Bridge work. Already, for example, Tiffin offers two-year bachelor's "completion" programs in criminal justice and business administration for students -- both online and in class -- with the equivalent of associate's degrees in those subjects.

"For anybody that would like to get the first two years online with the idea of transferring to a bachelor’s degree, there are not many options out there," Marion said. So far, the college has received thousands of inquiries and about a hundred applications for an expected 200 slots this fall, he said. Ivy Bridge is recruiting nationwide with the eventual expectation that students from other countries would enroll as well. Tiffin, with an enrollment of about 2,350, already boasts students from over 15 countries.

Tiffin's existing programs are mainly career-oriented, pointed out Cam Cruickshank, the university's vice president for enrollment management and Ivy Bridge's managing director. Since the two-year online program's goals are notably distinct from those of the university, he said, it made sense to brand it separately as a college within the university. The general-studies focus of the degree could lead to a liberal arts degree, for example, rather than a more career-focused pursuit.

To make the transition to a four-year college as smooth as possible once students earn their associate's degrees, Ivy Bridge is also working with colleges and universities across the country to establish articulation agreements. In theory, students beginning at Ivy Bridge would know the requirements they'd have to complete (such as G.P.A.), in advance, for each potential college they might want to transfer to later on.

And to keep them engaged while they're enrolled, Ivy Bridge will assign "success coaches" to each student. The idea is that students will be more successful if they have regular contact with someone over the phone or e-mail, even if only to ask about their progress and to address any anxieties about their work. The college will contract with InsideTrack, a company that provides student coaching services to at least 40 institutions.

"We are committed to student success. We want to provide them with everything possible to be successful," Cruickshank said, adding that the university completed a well-received pilot program with 18 students in the fall.

Officials at the American Association of Community Colleges said they weren't aware of the Ivy Bridge model being used elsewhere.


Back to Top