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Dozens of universities recently touted transfer agreements with community colleges as part of President Obama’s summit on higher education. Drexel University didn’t participate in the event. But it can hang with any private university when it comes to working closely with community colleges.

For eight years the Philadelphia-based university has taken its bachelor’s degree programs across state lines to New Jersey’s Burlington County College.

Students can earn a Drexel degree on Burlington’s campus after first earning an associate degree. They get a tuition discount in the program (see box for pricing), which remains more expensive than most public institutions.

Drexel’s faculty members teach the courses at Burlington. The university’s instructors do stints at the community college, which is 30 miles from Drexel’s campus.

There are no other colleges in Burlington County. And it isn’t easy for most Burlington students who want to pursue a four-year degree to leave home to enroll elsewhere. That’s because a large number of students at the college are working hard to balance job and family commitments, as well as their budgets, said David Hespe, Burlington’s president. He said Drexel makes a bachelor’s degree possible for them.

The draw isn’t just convenience. Hespe said the jump to a university looks less intimidating when students can continue on at a campus where they’ve already succeeded once. Drexel is sending a message to Burlington’s students that “you can do this,” said Hespe. “You can do this academically. You can do this within your budget.”

This year Drexel is taking the model to the next level, by exporting it to two other community colleges. Experts said the approach is unusual for a private institution. Other universities have similar agreements in place, but Drexel’s partnership with Burlington is one of the most extensive. About 300 students are currently enrolled in Drexel degree tracks at the two-year college campus.

In January the university announced that students at Montgomery County Community College, which is located in suburban Philadelphia, could earn Drexel degrees. Drexel also recently announced a similar partnership with Delaware County Community College, which is about 35 miles from the university’s campus.

The program “expands and elevates the educational opportunities in the region,” said John Fry, Drexel’s president.

Drexel at Burlington County College

Drexel's annual sticker price is $43,135

The annual price for Burlington students is $27,230

In addition to that 37 percent discount for the final two years of a bachelor's degree, Burlington students pay Burlington's $96 per credit for their associate degree. They also save on housing and transportation by enrolling locally. As a result, the $32,000 discount for the final two years is much larger when compared with four years at Drexel, which would be roughly $170,000 (sticker price).

The university already had deep ties to the three community colleges. For example, 75 students from Montgomery County Community College transferred to Drexel last year, said Karen Stout, the college’s president.

Many graduates from the three colleges also enroll in Drexel’s online degree programs, which are extensive. But Fry, who was a commencement speaker at Montgomery County last year, said the university wants to continue developing a “third way” for community college students to earn Drexel degrees.

“We’re going to think about as many different ways to connect with them as we can,” Fry said.

The partnership isn’t just about altruism. Drexel benefits in several ways, including financially.

“There’s a good, healthy margin there,” Fry said. “Both institutions do well financially.”

The university also gets pipelines to motivated, prepared students. The Burlington students are treated like their peers at Drexel’s main campus, Fry said. They can attend cultural events and basketball games. Even better, they can get a Drexel degree in the co-branded program.

“These are Drexel students,” Fry said.

Branching Out

Kay McClenney is a fan of Drexel’s approach. McClenney, who is director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, said other private institutions have brought their degree programs to two-year campuses.

For example, she cited Lone Star College’s University Center, which hosts bachelor’s and master’s degrees from six institutions. Our Lady of the Lake University and the University of St. Thomas (Houston) are all private university partners at the center, joining four state universities.

“This model is not uncommon, though also not yet pervasive,” McClenney said in an email. “It’s very good, for everyone -- students, community colleges, universities and communities.” 

Officials from Burlington said Drexel brought disciplines that would be difficult for a community college to create, even if it tried to go down the four-year degree path by itself. The university offers several STEM degree tracks at Burlington, including degrees in engineering, computer technology and biology.

Exporting those degree programs is no easy task. “These are very difficult majors to have off of your campus,” Hespe said. “You need specialized faculty,” as well as labs and equipment.

Fry, who arrived at Drexel in 2010, said he was impressed by faculty enthusiasm for the collaboration. (Instructors get bonus pay for the work.)

“I was amazed that we had so many faculty members willing to do this,” he said. “We had no problem getting faculty energized.”

The emerging partnership at Montgomery County will also feature a healthy dose of engineering and science, said Stout.

“It really strengthens our STEM pathways,” she said.

The college has solid connections with several nearby public institutions, particularly Temple University. Stout said Temple has long been the number one transfer option for Montgomery County students – more than 200 transferred there last year.

While a partnership with a private institution might raise some eyebrows, Stout said it’s not a threat to the college’s relationship with Temple and other public universities. “I don’t see this competing,” she said.

Stout thinks community colleges must get creative about partnerships to stay relevant. “We can’t survive anymore as independent operations.”

And while she had nothing but praise for the college’s public university partners, Stout said Drexel brought one competitive advantage to the table.

“I don’t see the publics being as flexible and nimble,” she said.

Familiarity was helpful when Burlington and Drexel’s leaders first crafted their deal back in 2006. “We knew them well. And they knew us well,” said Robert Ariosto, director of Burlington’s transfer center, who worked on the partnership's creation.

The state’s government had previously set rules for degrees offered by out-of-state providers on public college campuses. They are stringent, said Ariosto.

Degree programs have to be an “exact mirror image” of the ones offered on a university’s home campus, he said. “They could not be a second-class operation.”

Drexel got it done, however.

Hespe said the college plans to grow the program. And he’s not worried about criticism of a private university doing what one of the state’s public institutions might do instead. “You can’t argue with success,” he said.

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