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Campus building at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College

Cincinnati State

A small two-year college in Ohio is trying to solve a problem many institutions like it across the country face.

Enrollment is on the decline and tuition is frozen at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. But enter education behemoth Pearson Education. The company has signed onto a partnership with the college to essentially take over marketing, recruiting and student services. Cincinnati State enrolls fewer than 10,000 students.

It's a unique and first-of-its-kind type of partnership for Pearson.

"We decided to enter into an agreement with them about two years ago to solve this problem," said Todd Hitchcock, chief operating officer of Pearson Embanet, a subsidiary of Pearson. "What we found is what you would find at any community college in the country … so we thought, 'this is a good problem for us to solve.'"

The attributes Pearson found at the college include open-access admissions, a high percentage of adult learners and a significant number of first-generation students. And the company is trying to see if its resources, technology and staff could turn around enrollment and recruitment.

Enrollment has been the college's biggest concern as it's fallen over the years. According to the Ohio Department of Higher Education, enrollment at Cincinnati State fell by 12 percent from 2010 to 2015.

Cincinnati State has also felt the effects of a state-mandated tuition freeze. Meanwhile, Ohio is in the process of transitioning to a performance-based funding system for the state's public colleges and universities that would award or limit funding, dependent on metrics like student completion rates.

"We know there will be an increase in pressure to find the resources to improve recruiting strategies," said Monica Posey, interim president of the college. "We need the additional support to pull us up."

Posey said the college's drops in enrollment aren't just due to an improving economy. Other factors include competition from neighboring colleges that offer two-year degrees and from for-profit colleges, decreases in the high school population, and changes to the General Educational Development (GED) test that have made it more difficult for students to gain entrance to the college.

According to the agreement between Pearson and Cincinnati State, which was signed in October and extends to the spring semester of 2026, Pearson essentially is handling all of the college's marketing, recruiting, admission and retention efforts. The company is also hiring additional staff for the college and will make investments into these initiatives if enrollment and retention at the college increase.

Each year the college gives Pearson $550,000 from its marketing budget. Because the agreement has been active for only about six months, the college has paid Pearson $275,000 this year, said Jean Gould, the Cincinnati State's vice president of marketing and communications.

The contract is set up on a tuition-sharing model, Hitchcock said. The college will pay service fees to Pearson based on a tiered system that depends on retention and new students. Service fees can increase up to 20 percent of tuition revenue from new students.

"They have around 9,600 students enrolled in spring 2016 and our goal, in a 10-year partnership, is to increase that by 30 percent over the next decade, as well as increase persistence and completion rates, although we didn't put a number on those," Hitchcock said.

The company and the college can opt out of the agreement earlier than 2026.

"We have a tremendous amount of expertise in marketing, digital and traditional marketing. We're able to leverage everything we know about student acquisition on the front end from years of experience," Hitchcock said. "If you think about the traditional community college, they may have a couple of people in marketing, where we have hundreds. So on the marketing side, we've developed a comprehensive plan that really focused on their brand -- redesigning, redeveloping it and defining what it means to go to Cincinnati State."

Pearson has worked with Cincinnati State as a content provider for years now, and they have had custom partnerships with other universities before, although not every partnership has worked out. Last year, the University of Florida canceled an 11-year Pearson contract for the company to manage and build online programs.

Still, this partnership appears to be unique for Pearson, said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research for the American Association of Community Colleges. Baime said he couldn't name another community college that has anything similar in place.

"It's not surprising, though," he said. "The college is trying to get enrollment optimized. It's a problem a lot of colleges are having, and presidents are under a lot of pressure to get more students in."

And compared to other education sectors, community colleges spend a very small amount of money on recruiting. They're often squeezing the money they do have into teaching and other direct educational costs, but that's changing as competition for students increases, he said.

Despite Pearson's broad education footprint, don't expect Cincinnati State to immediately focus on recruiting internationally or across the country. Hitchcock said the college is more focused on educating and finding jobs for Ohio residents.

"Our current focus is this region. We really do want to be the No. 1 college of choice in southwest Ohio, but we do recognize there are opportunities to go beyond it," Posey said. "We do have some online programs and we do hope to recruit students beyond our geographic limitations over time."

Some have voiced concerns about a public college signing a broad student-recruiting agreement with a for-profit education entity. Faculty members, for instance, say they are viewing the contract with cautious optimism.

"There were a lot of people with concerns about a public college partnering with a for-profit organization, but we've been appropriately included," said Pam Ecker, president of the Cincinnati State chapter of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of technical and professional communication at the college. "We're carefully watching all the steps, and we never hesitate to have our voice heard."

Ecker said the college's administration has done a good job keeping everyone involved and informed throughout the process. She's also a member of a committee formed at the college to oversee the work and relationship with Pearson.

"We're not losing control. We have a leadership structure in place to maintain control by having an oversight committee with Pearson representatives and other college representatives," Posey said, adding that some Pearson staff work at the college and some college employees are Pearson funded. "Our basic approach to providing academic programs and services for students is really the same. We really have not substantially changed what we do at the institution."

And if faculty do have concerns or feel Pearson is intruding into academic or faculty matters, Ecker said, they won't be shy about raising red flags, although there may be future issues as Pearson maps out retention plans for the college.

Hitchcock said the company believes retention starts with the first contact a student makes with the college. Pearson discovered that only 20 percent of students who apply actually enroll at the college. They also found that 80 percent of Cincinnati State students who make it through the application process are admitted into remedial education. Those were just two areas that could have an effect on retention and where Pearson believes it can step in and help, he said.

However, Pearson is still in the early process of developing retention plans, Hitchcock said.

"As they grow, it's good for both of us," he said. "A lot of the risk is on us, too. We're putting resources on the ground and applying resources, but if we succeed, they succeed."

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