Regis University last week announced the creation of a new consortium  -- already with 39 members and growing -- to allow private colleges to essentially trade courses online.
While there are already numerous alliances offering distance education and universities offering entire degrees online, the new consortium is designed for smaller private colleges -- a sector of higher education that has been relatively slow (in many cases intentionally) to embrace distance education. The group aims to let colleges that have little or no distance presence begin to offer courses, while maintaining curricular control and holding on to current students who desire to have some of their education online.
Member institutions will be able to designate any distance course offered by any other member of the consortium as their own, so students need not worry about transfer credit. Because institutions can decide course by course which offerings to make their own, college faculties maintain control of their curriculums and can decide how much distance education they want available to their students.
Financially, the arrangement is very simple -- members pay a small fee to join (currently $2,500, but likely to go up a bit in March). Students pay the same per-credit tuition they would if the course had been created at their own institution, but the home institution and the college that created the course split -- roughly equally -- that tuition revenue. The institution offering the course is responsible for all costs, from faculty salaries to staffing a helpdesk. The institution where the student is formally enrolled collects the tuition and awards the credit.
There is a key limit also placed on the program: All courses offered will be aimed at adults with at least three years of work experience.
"Independent colleges that are medium-sized to smaller have just not gotten into the online business, and many of them have wanted to find a way to do so," said Thomas R. Kennedy, executive director of new ventures at Regis. To plan the consortium, he visited 65 colleges in the last year to talk to officials about what they wanted in distance education.
Regis, a Denver-based Jesuit institution, is among the minority of consortium members with an extensive distance program. Regis has a traditional undergraduate liberal arts program. But it also has thousands of adult students enrolled online in professional school programs and is one of the few liberal arts institutions that has been able to compete in a meaningful way with the large for-profits, like the University of Phoenix, and the large public online institutions, such as University of Maryland University College, for the older online student.
The model being offered by the consortium, Kennedy said, preserves the student bodies of the participating colleges. While many of the participating institutions are primarily undergradaute institutions focused on traditional age undergraduates, the adult market has been crucial to these institutions financially, and an inability to offer any courses online has put the colleges at a disadvantage.
"These aren't going to be transfer courses. They will be their courses, and the institutions keep their students," Kennedy said.
Regis offers about 250 online courses. Kennedy said that several other members of the consortium, while not providing that many, have significant online offerings. Among them are Robert Morris and Saint Leo's Universities. Most of the other consortium members,  Kennedy said, offer very little online now, although many see the consortium as a way to jump start their distance education efforts without investing in a distance education infrastructure.
All of the consortium members are smaller, private institutions and many (but not all) are Roman Catholic, like Regis, or are affiliated with other religious groups. The shared values of these institutions, Kennedy said, played a key role in planning the consortium. "These are all institutions that are not afraid to raise questions of values and ethics in courses," he said.
Two of the members so far are from outside the United States: Ateneo de Manila University, in the Philippines, and the National University of Ireland.
Kennedy said that he expected the program to start small this semester, with only about 150 students participating, and 350-450 next year. Within five years, organizers anticipate 2,500-3,000 participants a year. But Kennedy said that some members of the consortium may well decide based on their experiences that they want to do their own distance offerings. The goal of the program isn't massive growth, but letting the different institutions find their own right niche in distance education.
The College of Notre Dame of Maryland is among those with minimal experience in distance education that are joining the consortium. Suzanne Shipley, vice president for academic affairs, said that following extensive faculty discussions, the college has decided not to offer distance education as part of its undergraduate program for women, but to explore possible limited use of distance education in the college's weekend programs for adult students in business and computer science.
Students who have decided to enroll at a place like the College of Notre Dame "don't want an online degree. They came to us because they want the sense of community," Shipley said. But they also have times that their family and professional obligations make it difficult for them to get to campus, and they want specialized training that the college can't always speedily deliver.
Notre Dame is starting with the consortium with a three-course certificate sequence in project management that will be a part of the college's master's program in management. All degree graduates will then have had a "blended" program, primarily offered by faculty in person.
It probably would have been impossible for Notre Dame to offer such a program itself, at least not this coming semester, which is what the college is now able to do, Shipley said. "This is very attractive to us. We're starting small and making sure the quality and interaction is what we want," Shipley said. "For us to gear up and do this by ourselves would be a very large investment, and this is the perfect window to try something with a less expensive investment."