ASU Online, Colorado State University Global, University of Central Florida Online -- these large state universities all offer robust online degree programs, a natural extension of their widely recognized brands and impressive infrastructure. (Note: The names of the colleges in the preceding sentence were corrected.)
Add to that list … Hilbert College Global. In August, the private Franciscan college in small-town western New York State entered the online education business with an initial offering of 11 degree programs. The traditional Hilbert College student body of 730 so far outstrips the number of online students, but President Michael Brophy believes that in the coming years his online program will “snowball” to serve much larger numbers than the current 30 to 50 enrolled per eight-week term.
Brophy is candid about the fact that the decision to launch an ambitious online program was made in large part to create a new revenue stream and reach a different and larger student population. Hilbert, which now pulls about 70 percent of its student body from its western New York home base, is confronting a dwindling population of local youth interested in a Hilbert education. In 2015, Hilbert came close to merging with nearby St. Bonaventure University, a move that many believed signaled that Hilbert faced the same revenue pressures that have plagued so many small colleges in recent years.
“We are in western New York, and the demographics -- like they are in many parts of the country -- are going the wrong way,” Brophy said in an interview. “So, we have to reach people around the country and maybe around the globe.”
Erie County, where Hilbert is located, stayed roughly even in terms of population from the 2010 Census to 2019, but the under-18 population in the county is about 2 percent lower than it is nationwide.
Ben Kennedy, a Washington, D.C.-based educational consultant, said he is not aware of any other small private schools offering online degree programs on the scale that Hilbert is without the help of an online program manager (OPM). Maryville University in St. Louis also has a robust online offering of 42 programs -- Maryville’s student body has ballooned from about 4,200 total students in 2012 to nearly 10,600 today -- but it relied on an OPM to get started. OPMs provide instructional design, marketing and student support services to colleges, usually for a hefty fee, and are controversial because they are for-profit companies, which critics assert don’t always have the best interests of students in mind.
“I don’t know of a school of that size that has put forward that many programs all at once,” Kennedy said of Hilbert. “Typically, there’s more of a crunch for resources and lots of prioritization about which programs will succeed, and they’ll launch two, three, four in the first year and the second year and see how that goes.”
Hilbert College Global launched last June and hosted its first class in August. At $295 per credit, it is far cheaper than the $814.50 per credit that students enrolled in five in-person classes a semester will pay.
Brophy said that adjunct professors in particular are “jumping into” Hilbert College Global. The college was unable to say how many full professors will teach online.
Amy Smith, president of the Hilbert College Faculty Senate, said that most professors have been supportive of the online expansion because “particularly given the geographic area we’re in, the number of college-age students in the area is either flat or is declining, so we recognize the need to find some new markets.”
She said some professors are less comfortable with online education, and they are simply electing not to participate.
"There's always some folks for whom online is just not their thing," she said. "Over all, the response is a positive one from faculty."
Even before the pandemic hit in 2020, requiring most colleges to switch to entirely online curricula for safety’s sake, Brophy said Hilbert was already planning to launch Hilbert College Global. In the early summer of 2020, Brophy’s team partnered with Ellucian for instructional design and cybersecurity support. Brophy also decided to join Acadeum, a consortium of more than 400 course-sharing institutions, to both draw additional students and take advantage of the consortium’s courses. Acadeum helps colleges share coursework for online degree programs and has proven to be a vital network for many colleges entering the online marketplace. Brophy also hired a local firm to support Hilbert College Global’s digital marketing efforts. (Note: This paragraph has been updated to clarify that stadium has 400 partner colleges, not 200.)
Brophy said he decided not to partner with an OPM because the only model that made sense with those firms was the revenue-sharing option, and Hilbert didn’t want to “leave any money on the table.” He said OPMs were way too pricey, particularly since much of the instructional design had already been completed by his own professors, with guidance from Ellucian.
"If a dollar came in with an OPM, 60 cents would go back out to them or more," Brophy said.
OPMs are attractive to many colleges mounting online programs because they typically cover up-front costs in exchange for a share of revenue. Instead, Brophy relied on federal pandemic Payroll Protection Program funds to pay 85 professors to adapt courses for the online marketplace over the summer of 2020. The effort cost more than $500,000, Brophy said, but it was entirely funded by the federal pandemic relief money. All courses were designed in asynchronous mode -- meaning information can be shared outside the constraints of time and place among a network of people -- because Brophy said he wanted to be able to reach students all over the country.
The Hilbert College campus is sprawling, so students were able to return to campus in the fall of 2020 and remain socially distanced. Nonetheless, by that point the college had already put the entire catalog online. Brophy said the experience galvanized staff, helping everyone realize that the institution could pull off Hilbert College Global.
Brophy said one of the most important lessons he learned in building Hilbert Global was that prospective students expect to be answered immediately. He said that because big online programs like Arizona State and Southern New Hampshire University are immediately responsive to new inquiries, it is imperative for Hilbert to be “responsive within minutes, if not seconds.” Since so many nontraditional students are working, he said, many of them can’t get to the phone or a chat bot until 11 p.m.
In addition to the degree-seeking students Hilbert is targeting on its own -- Brophy acknowledged “the tough reality of funding the different marketing” to reach them -- the college is also chasing students through Acadeum and reaching out to high-performing high schoolers to round out its online classes.
Among the many quirks of the Hilbert story: the college’s Franciscan identity is central to its branding, which announces the school as “Online & Franciscan.” Brophy said that branding decision was made because he believes the Franciscan identity “differentiates us, and what we do on campus is, of course, what we’re striving to do online.”
All online students are required to take a course on the Franciscan philosophy, just as traditional campus students are. Brophy said professors think hard about how to impart the Franciscan ethic through a computer screen, because “the student understands that we’re a Franciscan school when they come to us.”
If Brophy has his way, many more will be coming.