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The New York Times Company plans to continue its slow advance into the realm of higher education this fall. It announced today that it is teaming up with the University of Southern California to offer continuing education programs to try to tap a growing market of adults looking to pick up new skills.

The new programs will comprise sequences of online courses taught by USC faculty through the Times Company’s online learning platform. While the programs will not count toward any degree, they represent the media company’s first foray into multicourse online sequences intended to confer a coherent body of knowledge. And that is yet another step toward full-fledged degree programs, which are coming, according to Felice Nudelman, the company’s executive director of education.

The company is pursuing partnerships that might soon have it stamping its seal on diplomas, Nudelman says. “We intend to grow in that market,” she says. “With USC, we are excited with this first step because we are excited about the potential for further depth and collaboration.”

The Times Company, which has seen its annual revenues fall by about 30 percent in the last five years, has waded into the waters of higher education more deliberately than some of its peers -- most notably the Washington Post Company, which now pays for its journalism operations largely off the back of Kaplan Inc., one of the country’s largest degree-granting enterprises.

But the Times's activities in higher education have picked up in recent years. The Times Company in 2008 purchased a majority stake in Epsilen, an online learning and social networking platform. It has since teamed up with a number of colleges and universities to offer online courses in which students can earn certificates and, in some cases, transferable credits. The Times Company would not disclose how much money it has been making from its higher ed forays, but Nudelman says it has been “very happy” with the outcome so far.

At a time when many institutions are entering into financial partnerships with outside education companies to help grow their online infrastructures, sometimes to the chagrin of traditional faculty, the Times is trying to position itself as an alternative to companies that offer similar services but seem like less natural allies to universities. “It is a model that we find our colleagues in the education sector to be comfortable with, and it’s a model that benefits both in terms of revenue,” says Nudelman.

To the extent that credentials are what many online learners want for their money, the Times Company’s new collaboration with USC represents a step backward from the certificate programs it is doing with institutions such as Farleigh Dickinson University and Ball State University. But Nudelman says the Times believes there is also a market for lifelong learners who are willing to pay to learn for learning’s sake. USC already runs face-to-face, noncredit continuing education courses that it says are profitable. The idea would be for the Times Company to help USC increase the scale of those programs by offering them online, while bolstering them by letting instructors draw on the New York Times archive and occasionally tap Times journalists for guest lectures.

There will be seven programs and 40 courses total in the NYT/USC partnership. The programs are in architecture, arts and culture, cinematic arts, global health, American politics, business and leadership, and executive education in business. There will also be a program in journalism aimed at high school students. But for the most part, the programs are tailored toward students “probably in their mid-20s through late 50s,” says Eileen Kohan, executive director of continuing education at USC. The length and price vary by course, but most last about four weeks and cost between $195 and $275, she says. Courses commence October 13.

USC believes the overseas brand cachet of the Times and its subsidiary, The International Herald Tribune, will allow the university to expand its global footprint, especially in Asia, says Kohan. Apropos, the two institutions are planning to formally open the new programs at an event in Hong Kong.

While online degree programs enroll many overseas students, fewer let adult learners “test the waters” by taking continuing education courses with a relatively low buy-in.

“Looking toward the resources we have and expanding internationally, there’s no one doing that,” Kohan says.

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