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Two unique models of providing distance education to mainly nontraditional students are coming into their own, each showing a healthy expansion of enrollments and growth in available course offerings. One, the Online Consortium of Independent Colleges & Universities, has been enlarging since its inception, while the other, Western Governors University, faced years of skepticism from critics who said its ambitious goals would never be met. Now, both are touting their success with fresh numbers and statistics, suggesting that online education needn't only come from large for-profit companies or local community colleges.

In 2005, Regis University announced a consortium of colleges that would work together, rather than compete, to share each others' online courses in a way that would in effect vastly expand the offerings of each of the group's members. Since then, the 39 founding colleges of the OCICU have expanded to 68, with 1,784 course enrollments over the past year.

The model is unusual in that it allows colleges that are interested in offering courses online, but don't necessarily have the resources to cover every conceivable topic, to supplement their catalog with classes that already exist -- in the consortium and on the Web, but not on their campuses. So far, seven of the member colleges, including Regis, act as "providers," essentially allowing other colleges in the group to pick and choose which courses to make available to their own students, with full institutional credit assigned through the student's college.

"We’ve just experienced remarkable growth and great feedback from the schools participating," said Thomas R. Kennedy, executive director of new ventures at Regis. "Especially as member schools ... they don’t have any online schools whatsoever, and overnight they have one. That’s one of the beauties of it."

That near-instant capability can serve students in a number of ways. Do they need to fulfill a general elective requirement, like sociology or political science? The providers offer plenty of possibilities for students at colleges that don't have the resources to fill every gap in the curriculum. What about students interested in a niche topic, like Irish studies? Some of the providers, as well as members that are planning on offering up courses to the rest of the consortium in the future, have such offerings as well.

Many, but not all, of the member colleges are religiously affiliated, and most fit the profile of small- or medium-sized institutions in the Council of Independent Colleges that may not have the resources to get into the distance education business on their own. Members pay a one-time fee of $3,500 to join the consortium plus an annual fee of $1,000, Kennedy said, to cover administrative costs. Of the approximately $1,350 in tuition for a three-credit course, he added, about $500 would go to the provider school per student -- essentially extra cash for a course that was already being held, he pointed out -- and $700 would remain at the student's home college, which would incur no additional cost.

“All these provider schools are doing is opening up their classes ... to visiting students, in a way,” he said. The key difference, however, is that students receive credit as if they took the courses at their own institutions, rather than as transfer credits.

Kennedy said he's been urging member colleges to pocket that extra tuition money "and start investing in your own online program."

Some are doing just that. Keuka College, in upstate New York, administers degree completion programs by partnering with hospitals and community colleges across the state. To help students in its various programs who need to take a specific course or two to complete their degrees, the college can now send them to offerings available online through the consortium.

“We found that by using courses offered through the consortium, we could offer students more forms of access," said Gary Smith, associate vice president for professional studies and international programs at Keuka, especially for the "general education or general elective pool that’s outside our major program offerings."

This year, Keuka will ramp up its own online courses by playing to its strengths: If all goes according to plan, Smith said, the college will add classes in Asian studies to the consortium's lineup.

A 'Competency-Based' University Takes Off

Another model that's meeting or exceeding the expectations of its leaders is breathing a sigh of relief. Western Governors University, founded in 1997 by 19 state governors, started with ambitious plans to grow its enrollment and become a regional economic engine. But the initial plans faltered and the university found itself the object of criticism and even scorn -- although that wasn't necessarily confined to Western Governors.

"If you go back to the mid-'90s, when the idea for WGU bubbled up from among the conversations from the governors of the Western states, there was at that time no clear sense of whether or not online education would work, period, or would work with any level of success and any decent level of quality," said Patrick Partridge, the university's vice president of marketing and enrollment. But, he acknowledged, there was plenty of skepticism in academe as well. "I think that skepticism was both of a financial type and sort of an awareness ... of the kind of political hurdles in the higher-ed world."

These days, the picture for both online education in general, and WGU in particular, seems quite a bit brighter. The nonprofit institution, which receives no state support and sustains itself primarily through tuition and private donations, announced this month that it had reached an enrollment of 10,000 students -- up from 500 in 2003. That growth can be attributed to a number of factors, including regional accreditation, but the university also emphasizes two features that distinguish it from most of its peers: a "competency-based" approach to assessing students' work, and its nationally accredited Teachers College.

From the outset, courses and curriculums are developed with input from senior faculty together with an "outside council" including practitioners from a given field. Course material is then assessed to a level that's considered "highly competent," Partridge said, by the developers of the course, effectively creating a standardized set of requirements in lieu of more independent assessments by individual instructors. Upon completion, employers can theoretically be assured that students are proficient in a specific set of skills and knowledge.

The university doesn't give letter grades, and it allows students to take as long as they want in their course of study -- which could be a mixed blessing, since they pay a flat fee (a bit under $3,000) every six months. All in all, Partridge said, "we are as different from the other online schools as they are from" traditional higher education. It's a model not suited to everyone, he acknowledged, but especially tailored to students with a certain “impatience” or “determination” to complete in a timely manner.

Another significant draw for WGU is the Teachers College, which, unlike any other such online program, places graduates at schools in virtually every state. Now, at least half of WGU's students are enrolled in the teaching program. "[W]e offer a path to initial teacher licensure for individuals all around the country who want to become teachers, often later in life where returning to a traditional school of education ... is just not that convenient," Partridge said.

The university projects further growth in the coming years, with a predicted enrollment of up to 15,000 in the foreseeable future. "We really see the future as one in which the people of the United States and the adult audience need to have very good-quality and affordable options to either get a first bachelor’s degree or continue to pursue [a] master’s degree, in particular change careers and pursue dreams that will in the long run strengthen our economy, the citizenry and make our country, our states, etc., stronger," said Partridge.

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