Small College, Big Online Partners

Champlain College continues to expand in the adult learner market, landing a high-profile partner with the federal government. Does it provide a model for small private colleges to succeed online?

May 15, 2015
Champlain College's ground campus in Burlington, Vt.
(Champlain College)

Champlain College is making a surprising play in the online adult learner market, slashing its private college tuition rates for corporate partners to compete for their employees’ tuition assistance dollars.

The college landed a big-name partner in April, securing a nonexclusive partnership with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The partnership means more than two million federal employees and their family members can take Champlain's online courses at reduced rates.

Champlain has purposely split itself in two. There is the college, a small campus of about 2,000 traditional-age students in Burlington, Vt., across the street from the University of Vermont. Then there is the online college, a certificate and degree provider for more than 1,000 working adults.

The split is most evident in how students pay for their education, as well as what they get for their money. At the physical college, undergraduate students this year pay $37,436 for tuition (graduate students pay between $660 and $1,080 per credit hour) and take classes taught by full-time faculty. Online, students get a roughly 70 percent discount to study on their own time in courses directed by full-time faculty but taught by “professional practitioners” who work as adjuncts.

Champlain is growing its online college through truED, a subscription model it launched about 18 months ago. While the college has offered online courses since 1996, truED targets corporations, nonprofits and government agencies with a low-risk proposal: a one-year renewable memorandum of understanding stating that partners will point their employees to Champlain and keep the college up-to-date on their talent development efforts. In comparison, many online education providers target individual learners with extensive (and expensive) marketing campaigns.

“If colleges and universities are going to thrive in the new economy, we have to break down the walls between industry and higher ed,” Jayson Boyers, vice president of continuing professional studies, said in an interview. “This is Champlain College stepping forward saying, 'you can do this.'”

By effectively making its partners market Champlain to its employees, the college is able to cut down on the cost of acquiring students -- particularly direct marketing costs, Boyers said. Those savings allow Champlain to offer its programs at a steep discount. While a 70 percent cut sounds dramatic, the reduction means a bachelor or master's degree costs between $10,000 and $12,000, and a certificate about $3,000. The subscription fee ranges from $250 to $800 per month depending on how many courses a student takes. Since Champlain is not partnering with an online enabler company, it does not have to share the tuition revenue.

For a small, private nonprofit college with only regional name recognition, deeply discounted tuition rates are a requirement to be able to compete with other online education providers, said Kenneth E. Hartman, a former president of Drexel University Online who now works as an analyst for the consulting firm Eduventures. While such discounts are “nothing new,” he said, 70 percent qualifies as “above the norm” comparatively.

“What Champlain College is doing is a smart move because they’re in a highly competitive environment -- particularly in the online undergraduate completion sector, where students are oftentimes looking for the best financial deal they can get,” Hartman said. “If you’re not a nationally renowned institution, you’re going to have to look to these types of partnerships to do exactly what this college is doing.”

Corporate Alliances

Since the launch of truED, Champlain has formed dozens of alliances with companies such as AT&T, Cigna and Ben & Jerry’s. Its online enrollment is approaching 1,500. The college plans to grow the number of partners to 100 and its online student population to 5,000, Boyers said.

Yet it was Champlain’s 57th partnership -- the U.S. Office of Personnel Management -- that caught the attention of many observers of the adult learner market. The college announced the partnership last month.

Boyers was coy about how Champlain picks its partners. The college created a list of potential partners based on where its programs and the companies’ needs intersected and “began knocking on doors,” he said. Champlain has yet to see a partner choose not to renew the one-year commitment, although many partners have not been truED members for a full year, said Boyers.

“We have a wheelhouse of where we feel like we can make a difference,” Boyers said. “We’re not the right partner for every company.” The college has been approached by hospital systems interested in a master’s degree in nursing, for example, but has rejected the offers. “That’s not who we are,” he said. “That’s not a program that fits well with what we do.”

The college’s partnership with the federal government provides some insight into how Champlain approaches targets on its list. To convince the agency that the college was a good fit for federal employees, Champlain built its pitch around a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which found that the workforce faces “mission-critical skills gaps” in areas such as cybersecurity, human resource management and broadly in STEM fields.

“The schools we partner with must have a curriculum that addresses the current needs in governmentwide mission-critical occupations,” the agency said in a statement. “Ultimately, these educational partnerships are a win-win for agencies and employees alike, because they close federal mission-critical skills gaps and help federal employees pursue higher education.”

Champlain's partnership with AT&T, meanwhile, was more narrowly focused. “Our existing relationship with Champlain was created to specifically provide cybersecurity courses to our employees,” a spokeswoman for the company said. “We were impressed with their cybersecurity curriculum and thought it would be an asset to our [development] programs.”

Champlain’s partnership with the OPM is not an exclusive one -- a decision that the agency said grants employees “freedom of choice.” The University of Maryland University College partnered with the agency last year, charging students about $375 a credit -- a 25 percent discount on out-of-state tuition.

Neither institution expressed concern about competing for federal employees. “The federal workforce is more than two million strong, so there is certainly room for growth for UMUC and for Champlain,” Robert Ludwig, a spokesman for UMUC, said in an email. UMUC so far has enrolled about 1,200 students, amassing savings of more than $765,000 in the first year, he added.

Boyers was also optimistic about Champlain's opportunities for enrollment growth, even though UMUC has decades of experience in the adult learner market and enrolls tens of thousands of students. “We don’t have to be an exclusive partner,” he said. “We will fill a need. The students who will benefit from us the most will find us.”

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Carl Straumsheim

Carl Straumsheim, Technology Correspondent, joined Inside Higher Ed in 2013. He got his start in journalism as a video game blogger for Norway's third largest paper, Dagbladet, at age 15, and has since dabbled in media criticism, investigative reporting and political coverage. Straumsheim (pronounced STROMS-hyme) boasts that he once received a perfect score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, which enabled him to pursue a bachelor's degree in English from LaGrange College and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland at College Park.

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