Quite a few students and families are willing to pay more than $44,000 a year to attend Wofford College, a traditional undergraduate liberal arts institution in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
That price (lower if a student qualifies for aid) will get a student access to a strong academic program, as well as Division I athletics; amenities such as a workout space, dining halls, and study space; and a 175-acre campus that’s recognized as a national arboretum.
Turns out, a lot of other people might be willing to pay for access to those amenities, too.
In 2010, Wofford struck up a deal with the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, known as VCOM, an institution based in Blacksburg, Va., interested in setting up a branch at the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center a few blocks from Wofford. The three-way partnership between the hospital, the medical school, and Wofford gave VCOM students access to Wofford facilities and amenities in exchange for a certain payment from VCOM.
The deal provides an unconventional source of revenue for Wofford without the college having to compromise its liberal arts mission, administrators say. Wofford students, including a large group of pre-med students, get some access to VCOM and Spartanburg facilities to improve their educational experience. For VCOM, the move helps the institution save money, since it can forgo costly expenses like information technology infrastructure, fitness centers, and dining halls. It also helps give VCOM a campus feel it might not have if it were on its own. And it brings students from both institutions into contact with one another, creating greater diversity on campus.
As liberal arts colleges struggle to find a way to maintain their traditional small-class residential model, one that’s becoming increasingly expensive, many have started to add revenue-generating academic programs that diverge from the traditional liberal arts model. Wofford’s partnership demonstrates another potential avenue: granting access to college facilities – often some of the best in the area, and frequently underutilized – in exchange for revenue and other opportunities that could strengthen the university’s academic programs.
“If we approached this solely as a source of revenue – selling off or renting some of our resources – it wouldn’t be the same kind of outcome,” said Benjamin "Bernie" Dunlap, Wofford's president. “Everybody wants to find a partnership like this, one that matches the institution’s mission while producing revenue. It strengthens the university’s academic program while creating a profit line.”
Partnerships with like-minded organizations are nothing new. Liberal arts colleges regularly host camps during the summer when students aren’t on campus. And there are several examples of consortiums of similar institutions, the most prominent being the Claremont colleges. What’s interesting in the Wofford/VCOM case is that it was partly done with the financial benefit in mind, rather than solely for academic reasons. It also incorporates other groups into the daily life of the college.
In a survey of college and university presidents by Inside Higher Ed released earlier this year, 44 percent of private baccalaureate institution presidents said their college was exploring collaboration opportunities for administrative services with other institutions, and another 33 percent said it was something that should be considered. A conference at Lafayette College in April focused heavily on the idea of partnerships.
Building a Partnership
The partnership is the brainchild of Ingo Angermeier, who in 2010 was president of Spartanburg Regional. For years, VCOM had been sending graduates to serve as residents at Spartanburg hospitals, and Angermeier was eager to have more. When he met with VCOM representatives, they mentioned that they were trying to expand in Charlotte, N.C., but were having difficulty getting the program off the ground. Angermeier asked if they would be willing to consider Spartanburg, about an hour and a half southwest of Charlotte.
Angermeier said Spartanburg had benefits Charlotte couldn’t match. The medical center is significantly larger than any in Charlotte. And the city had seven other higher education institutions, including several eager to partner with the medical school.
VCOM’s first campus, opened in 2002, has a symbiotic relationship with Virginia Tech University. The medical school’s founder and chair of its Board of Directors, John Rocovich, was an alumnus of Virginia Tech and a member of the university’s board. He wanted the medical school to be a part of a campus community.
The medical school’s campus was built on Tech’s Corporate Research Center, a few miles from the main campus, and uses some of the university’s technology infrastructure, such as ethernet and e-mail. The college’s website is hosted on Virginia Tech’s vt.edu. The medical school also pays a per-student fee to the university to give its students the same level of access to Tech fitness and recreation facilities, student union, university libraries, and athletic events as traditional Virginia Tech students.
Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations at Virginia Tech, said the partnership appealed to Tech because it provided new research possibilities. “Part of John’s vision was for this osteopathic college to be different than others,” Hincker said. “Others are almost exclusively focused on education and training, and he wanted this osteopathic college to be engaged in research as well. That would be a benefit for us, because we were looking to expand into life sciences and research, so that’s really where the Venn diagrams overlapped.”
Tech and VCOM faculty have worked together on research projects and VCOM faculty members have been able to use Tech’s research facilities. Several high-profile research projects at Tech, including a widely cited project measuring the effect of hits on football helmets, have been joint ventures with the medical school.
Administrators wanted a similar setup at the South Carolina campus. Dunlap said he was interested in the partnership because Wofford has a largest percentage of students interested in pursuing graduate degrees in medicine of any South Carolina college. Despite a student population of only about 1,500, it graduates the second-most students who go on to medical school of any South Carolina undergraduate institution.
VCOM ended up building its campus next door to Wofford.
The medical school in Spartanburg has admitted about 160 students a year since it opened in 2011, so this fall there will be about 320 medical students in the program and around Wofford’s campus of about 1,500 undergraduates.
The medical school pays the college a per-student fee that amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue for Wofford. In exchange for that, medical students have access to Wofford’s recreational facilities, cultural events, lectures, concerts, libraries, and other student spaces. They can also purchase meal plans for the college’s dining halls.
Dunlap said Wofford had additional capacity before the partnership, so the VCOM students haven’t put too much strain on facilities. The university just opened a third dining hall, so there was space available. Any extra capacity required by the increase in demand is covered in the fees paid to the college, Dunlap said.
In fact, in some areas the medical students’ presence has improved campus life, Dunlap said. Wofford is home to a Division I athletic program that includes football, and with only 1,500 undergraduates, Dunlap said, it’s sometimes hard to fill the stands. “It’s a win-win-win situation,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap said in addition to the revenue boost the college gets, the partnership gives Wofford students access to VCOM facilities, such as simulation programs, that can potentially improve their academic experience. They can also sit in on medical school classes.
While the two groups of students exist mostly in harmony, Dunlap said there has been some complaining by Wofford students about medical students dominating on the intramural field. “That’s somewhat resented from time to time,” he joked.
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