For some in higher education, what happened at the University of Toledo earlier this month was a small victory in a simmering war. For others, it was an illustration of academe’s resistance to a future that is coming, ready or not.
Faced with the prospect  of partnering with a private company to deliver online master's degrees in education, the faculty at Toledo rose up in protest and managed to kill  the deal. But the story of Higher Ed Holdings -- an ambitious Texas-based company selling distance learning support to universities -- didn’t begin in Ohio, and it’s not likely to end there. Moreover, a growing debate about how universities will be forced to change in the coming decades -- and the extent to which the private sector will play a role -- is a subject that’s not going to die with the Toledo deal.
At Arkansas State University, where a recent partnership with Higher Ed Holdings is getting decidedly mixed reviews, fissures are quickly forming. Just last week, a faculty member resigned from an academic committee in protest, proclaiming: “I simply refuse to be part of this HEH scam.” The professor’s e-mail is emblematic of the passion with which some faculty are resisting the company, even as others characterize its approach as “the wave of the future.”
Higher Ed Holdings landed its first contract in 2007 with Lamar University, an institution in Beaumont, Tex., that had suffered severe damage and enrollment declines after Hurricane Rita slammed the Gulf Coast two years earlier. It was in this context that an old friend came knocking. Randy Best, a Texas entrepreneur who has become something of a legend at his alma mater, laid out an ambitious plan. Best promised to deliver dramatic enrollment increases for Lamar at virtually no up-front cost to the institution, using a new online delivery system and advanced marketing techniques few universities can afford to employ.
Lamar already had the beginnings of a distance learning presence, but Best was offering the equivalent of “high definition TV compared to Power Point slides,” recalls Steve Doblin, provost at Lamar. The enrollment growth would be supported by Higher Ed Holdings' own “academic coaches,” a group of employees hired by the company to handle most of the grading and daily online interaction with students. The coaches have a minimum of a master’s degree, and universities can dismiss them if they don't approve of their performance or qualifications, according to the company.
Lamar “did not rush into this,” and university officials were clear and firm about their expectations, Doblin said.
“We said we want to do this, but here’s the deal: You’re in charge of production, marketing and recruitment; but they have to be our courses, our faculty, our admissions requirements, period,” Doblin recalls.
The hard-line stance Doblin describes has become a familiar refrain for university leaders explaining -- and often defending -- a partnership with Higher Ed Holdings. Administrators are all very clear about what they demand upon entering these contracts; whether that’s what they actually get, however, is a matter of increasing debate.
Despite the setback in Toledo, Higher Ed Holdings is a growing enterprise. In 2008, the company teamed up with three more universities. The company is supporting master's degrees in education at Arkansas State University; education and nursing degrees at the University of Texas at Arlington; and a nursing degree at Ohio University.
Arkansas Faculty Bypassed
If the fight over Higher Ed Holdings at Toledo was an all out brawl, the debate at Arkansas State University has been more of a boxing match -- but gloves are still optional. The concerns Toledo faculty expressed are shared by many at Arkansas State, where professors fear they’re being forced to develop cookie-cutter courses that can be used by thousands of students at a time.
Higher Ed Holdings officials maintain that faculty control of courses is never compromised, even though the “academic coaches” hired by the company typically have more interaction with students.
“The professor always remains in complete control of the content of his course,” Deborah Nugent, the company’s corporate secretary, wrote in an e-mail. “HEH is not a content provider; rather HEH is a distribution and student support system."
While the company insists universities retain complete control of their programs, contracts between Higher Ed Holdings and two universities -- Arkansas State and Ohio -- both state that "once adopted" the universities "shall not amend the curriculum except with the consent" of the company.
There's also an indication that, at least in the early going, Higher Ed Holdings officials took a more active role in developing courses than some say they would have preferred. John Beineke, dean of the College of Education at Arkansas, said in a letter to the Faculty Senate that the rush to move forward with the courses prompted company officials to go "beyond the call of duty."
"Due to an ambitious time schedule for implementation set by the university, not the department, these professors were under extraordinary time pressure to have their courses ready," Beineke wrote. "To help relieve this pressure as much as possible, HEH facilitators provided assistance beyond their 'call of duty' and in some cases helped to compose some documents. In each and every case, the professors reviewed and approved these documents."
If faculty had objections about Higher Ed Holdings at Arkansas State, they weren’t given much of an opportunity to express them. The ink was dry on the contract with the company before most faculty even caught wind of a deal in the works. On April 14, 2008, a “delegation” of administrators from Arkansas went to visit Lamar University to discuss the institution’s experience with Higher Ed Holdings. Four days later, the contract was signed.
Dan Howard, vice chancellor for academic affairs and research at Arkansas State, described the university’s review process -- including a separate meeting with Higher Ed Holdings in Dallas -- as thorough.
“We’re not a bunch of lemmings that go off the cliff,” Howard said. “We look very carefully at what we’re doing, and I think this is precisely the case of what happened here.”
But the “we” that did all of this analysis of Higher Ed Holdings did not include a single faculty member without administrative duties. The Arkansas State System president, a trustee, dean, department chair and Howard were all included in the meetings, but the faculty who would be asked to teach their classes in this new format were left out completely before the contract was signed.
Arkansas State officials do not dispute that faculty without administrative duties were not involved in the initial meetings with Lamar and Higher Ed Holdings, but the university's general counsel noted that "contracts for goods and services entered into by Arkansas State University do not typically involve faculty."
"While initial review of the HEH model included persons with administrative duties, faculty members were involved before the delivery method was put in place by ASU," Lucinda McDaniel, the university's general counsel, wrote in an e-mail Monday.
When faculty finally learned of the contract, someobjected, but to no avail. Tom Fiala, then-chair of the curriculum committee in Arkansas State's College of Education, fired off a highly critical letter in early May, objecting to the entire concept underlying the Higher Ed Holdings deal.
“If the METP program thrives as predicted, it will … likely lead to diminished numbers in other master’s programs in spite of the fact that the real Academic Coaches in these advanced programs are true university level professors who must meet the research and teaching standards of the academy,” Fiala wrote. “A partnership with HEH will drastically alter ASU’s graduate programs in general as predatory marketing tactics are employed to lure students, not only from other institutions of higher learning, but from other programs within the university.”
With objections being raised about the deal, and criticism of the lack of faculty involvement growing, the university continued to bypass established principles of shared governance by not obtaining the approval of the university's Graduate Council, according to several professors interviewed for this story. Some administrators now dispute that the General Council's approval was necessary, because the university was merely adopting a new "delivery format" -- not creating a new program. But Beineke, dean of the College of Education, admitted that the necessary approval process had not taken place in his letter to the Faculty Senate Oct. 17, 2008.
“While the dean and chair had every expectation and intention that the various curricular steps would be met before the offering of the first course this did not happen,” he wrote.
Beineke refused multiple interview requests. Mitch Holifield, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership, Curriculum & Special Education, also did not respond to inquiries from a reporter. Higher Ed Holdings would respond to questions only via e-mail, until Friday, when a media consultant -- retained over the course of the reporting of this story -- fielded queries.
It wasn’t until March 12, nearly a year after the contract was signed, that Arkansas State faculty members in the department working with Higher Ed Holdings formally voted on offering any programs. In a 10-6 vote, the faculty approved an expansion of the partnership, offering two more master's degrees through Higher Ed Holdings.
“The vote established firmly that the faculty have been, overall -- not every faculty member on the planet, obviously -- but overall, the faculty members in that department were favorably disposed of the quality of the model that has been used in the masters degree in educational theory and practice,” Howard said.
While there was no formal vote before March 12, "the department unanimously decided" to move forward with an initial degree as an experiment prior to that vote, according to McDaniel, the university's general council. Faculty interviewed for this story do not dispute such an initial agreement, but some argue that they only agreed on the condition that a cohort of students would be required to complete the first degree prior to any additional offerings. By delaying expansion, faculty hoped to be able to quantitatively assess the program's effectiveness, but the vote to expand came before any such data was available, according to several faculty who opposed the expansion.
For those who participate in the program, there are financial rewards. Arkansas State officials could not confirm the figures with certainty Monday, but said their recollection is that professors are paid $3,500 for developing courses and an additional $3,500 for teaching courses on top of their normal loads. The associate dean and department chair receive $1,000 per course developed, officials said.
While the vote expanded the Academic Partnerships program at Arkansas State, critics question the vote's appropriateness. Several faculty members who opposed the decision said untenured faculty felt compelled to side with administrators -- although some tenured faculty supported the measure. Perhaps more importantly, some questioned whether a different vote would have changed anything.
Before the vote even took place, administrators had taken steps that indicated the expansion was moving forward. Months before faculty voted on partnering with Higher Ed Holdings to deliver master’s degrees in Educational Leadership and Curriculum and Instruction, both programs were listed as “pending approval” in the university’s graduate bulletin. Several faculty members say listing unapproved programs in the bulletin is without precedent at Arkansas State.
In addition to placing the programs in the bulletin, the university also sought permission to advertise them in the State of Tennessee before gaining faculty approval. A committee of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission approved a measure January 29 that authorized Arkansas State to offer the programs to Tennessee residents, minutes of the committee's meeting indicate. The commission’s approval came about 1 ½ months before faculty were ever asked to vote.
Asked about the appearance that the partnership was a “done deal” prior to any faculty vote, university officials wrote an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed saying that “faculty did not need to vote to approve those programs; they were already approved.” The vote, officials said, was merely to determine whether to deliver existing programs through the Higher Ed Holdings model.
That interpretation of the facts, however, is in dispute for a variety of reasons. While all of the master’s degrees did indeed exist in traditional formats, the graduate bulletin separately identifies three “online Academic Partnership” degrees as “pending approval” -- suggesting approval was necessary. As for getting approval from Tennessee before the faculty vote, Howard said in an e-mail that the contact “was made in anticipation of offering our programs in Tennessee using the delivery method provided through HEH.”
William Rowe, a professor of art, said the faculty's vote was a last straw for him. Rowe, who argues that each of the three programs required approval from the Graduate Council, resigned from the council immediately after he learned of the March 12 vote.
“I simply refuse to be part of this HEH scam,” wrote Rowe, who is president of the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, as well as vice president of the state chapter. “ASU-[Jonesboro] has decided on quantity over quality and I will not participate in this ‘pending’ fiasco.”
Howard disputed that any Graduate Council approval was required, because the deal with Higher Ed Holdings only changes the "delivery format."
“The Graduate Council approves all new graduate academic courses/programs and substantive changes to these courses/programs. It does not approve the delivery format for academic courses and programs,” Howard wrote in an e-mail. “The decision to offer approved courses through distance learning does not require shared governance review.”
Again, Howard’s interpretation differs from that of some faculty members. According to the university’s faculty handbook , the council has the general charge of providing “guidance and direction for the university’s graduate programs.” More specifically, the council "considers and recommends graduate curriculum changes and new programs," as well as policies on "academic standards, and graduation requirements." Even if the master’s degrees offered through Higher Ed Holdings are not to be considered “new,” there’s little debate that the university altered graduation requirements, reducing from 36 hours to 30 the required time to complete the master's in Educational Theory and Practice.
Erik Gilbert, a member of the Graduate Council, said a faculty representative from the Department of Educational Leadership, Curriculum & Special Education went before the council several months ago seeking their approval. The council balked, concerned that the course requirements for the master’s programs were insufficiently rigorous, and demanding more information, Gilbert said. Since that meeting, no one has asked the council again for approval, and Howard now asserts they don’t need it anyway because the program isn't "new."
“At different times people sort of represent these things in different ways,” Gilbert said. “But when it’s convenient for them, they maintain that there’s nothing new about it.”
“The whole thing is utterly Byzantine,” added Gilbert, a professor of history. “The ground shifts and the terms change constantly.”
Program Expands Rapidly
If Lamar University officials have one regret about the Higher Ed Holdings deal, it’s that they didn’t fully appreciate how dramatically and quickly enrollments would skyrocket. Lamar’s College of Education has seen rapid growth in its graduate programs, and that’s almost entirely attributable to the Higher Ed Holdings partnership. From the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2008, graduate enrollment in the college grew to 4,173, a spike of nearly 225 percent in a single year. Of all of the students enrolled in Lamar graduate education programs, 77 percent are in Academic Partnership programs.
For the profit model to work for Higher Ed Holdings, exponential growth is essential. The company bolsters numbers in large part through an advertising campaign that resembles those of colleges seeking a national audience, as opposed to the more regional approach universities like Arkansas State and Lamar have traditionally employed.
"We do not have an ability to market as effectively as they do," Howard said. "... The product that they put together was absolutely first rate."
Prospective Arkansas students who visit the Academic Partnership's Web site  are greeted by video of a company spokeswoman who springs forth from the bottom of the page hologram-style. The spokeswoman hits the high notes of the marketing campaign: Low price, quick completion. The degrees cost a total of $4,950, which is as much as 60 percent less than comparable degrees cost. The time to degree is as little as 18 months for a degrees that can traditionally take 24 months to complete.
Borrowing a marketing technique that's traditionally employed in infomercials, Higher Ed Holdings is also pushing a "limited time" offer. The first 500 students accepted into the Arkansas State master's program are given the "First Course FREE!" -- a $495 value. The discount is given in the form of a "scholarship" to the "first 500 qualified and accepted applicants."
In exchange for Higher Ed Holdings’ services, universities typically give the company 80 percent of tuition revenues, according to three contracts provided to Inside Higher Ed. While the universities forfeit significant dollars in the deal, state appropriations are rising in tandem. Public universities typically receive state appropriations based party on credit hour production, and that number is rising steadily, even though the enrollment growth hasn’t required any new brick and mortar.
At Lamar, which has the most established program, enrollment growth has prompted the hiring of about six new faculty members, as well as additional hiring in admissions and the registrar's offices to handle the uptick in applications and students, according to Doblin, the university's provost said. Higher Ed Holdings, however, handles major expenses, including recruitment, technology, marketing and payment of the "coaches."
Public Universities, Private Deals
As a public institution, Doblin says “we believe in transparency and accountability [at Lamar].” But officials at the university have clammed up when it comes to talking about money.
Catherine Perry Cotten, executive director of Academic Partnerships at Lamar, repeatedly refused to say how much money the program has generated. Asked about revenues in an e-mail, Cotten said "we meet all expenses." Asked again to clarify her remarks by e-mail, Cotten said "As far as the revenue stream. We are running in the black. We spend no more than we make." Subsequent inquiries received no response.
While Cotten isn't discussing revenues, rough calculations suggest Lamar would generate about $16 million from current Academic Partnership students if all of those enrolled complete their master’s degrees. Under the contract, Higher Ed Holdings’ take would be approximately $12.8 million. The division of the dollars between the company and Lamar, however, constitutes a ballpark estimate because several variables are unknown. Lamar keeps more of the money for out-of-state students, and the university is also compensated for the courses it develops and teaches.
'The Goal is Scale'
Faculty who’ve taught classes or developed them through Higher Ed Holdings have differing views on the program’s effectiveness, and some of the harshest criticism actually comes from those who’ve refused to test it out.
Joe Nichols, an associate professor of education at Arkansas State, just wrapped up his first course with Higher Ed Holdings. His course was already offered online, but the company offers a new format that Nichols said improved the presentation of material. “I think the quality of delivery was superior to the way I do it online, but the content didn’t change one bit,” he said.
Nichols still said he prefers teaching in a traditional classroom, but feels the market simply demands growth online.
"I'm certainly not a poster-boy for HEH," he said. "I prefer doing face-to-face [teaching]."
For faculty who are comfortable with the concept of distance learning, Higher Ed Holdings’ model shouldn’t come as much of a shock, according to Kathleen Rose-Grippa, associate director of the master's in nursing program at Ohio University. Ohio recently signed a contract with the company to help deliver its bachelor of science in nursing (RN to BSN) degree, a program that has already been online for years.
“As long as I’m calling the shots, HEH is a vendor as far as I’m concerned,” said Rose-Grippa, who is currently designing a course with the company. “I’m using their services; it’s not different than when I go to the office supply place and order a computer. …
“They provide suggestions. If I say I don’t really like that strategy, the person I work with says fine.”
What unquestionably changes in a partnership with Higher Ed Holdings is enrollment, and some argue that this change alone has an affect on quality. At Lamar, where the partnership with Higher Ed Holdings is in full swing, classes have grown to as large as 2,000 students.
The large enrollments have raised questions in the minds of some professors about how they could possibly develop any kind of relationship or dialogue with their students. While Higher Ed Holdings officials maintain that faculty control curriculum, they don’t dispute that the large classes require faculty to rely more heavily on standardized testing than essays or other assignments that require more grading time.
“You’ve got to do your course to incorporate quite a bit of auto-grading, and strike a balance as to how much high-touch grading you have,” said Robert Riggs, a newly-hired spokesman for the company. “That’s a fact of life of doing it online; there has to be a pretty good component of auto grading.”
In a workshop for professors at Arkansas State, Higher Ed Holdings officials explained that coaches could only devote five to eight minutes per student, per week to grading, according to two faculty members who were present. Company officials also encouraged faculty to consider breaking down large essays into smaller pieces, say 150 words each or about a paragraph at a time, so they could be more easily graded, the faculty said.
Julie Grady, an assistant professor for curriculum at Arkansas State, said she felt the company was placing restrictions on assignments and content, even though they repeatedly said faculty could “absolutely … absolutely … absolutely” (they said it a lot) do whatever they wanted.
“It was ‘Oh yes, you have absolute control over the assessment. But it has to be something the coaches can grade,’ ” Grady recalls from the meeting. “‘Yes, you have control, but you’ve got to make sure it’s something the coaches can grade quickly.’ We can do whatever we want, but we have to make sure the coaches can handle 100 to 125 students each.”
Coaches handle an average of 118 students each, and seldom fewer than 25, according to Higher Ed Holdings. As for how much grading the coaches can do, company officials have given differing accounts. Grady and another faculty member say they were told coaches could handle five to eight minutes per student per week. Riggs, the company’s spokesman, initially said the figure was closer to 8 to 12 minutes, adding that stronger students didn’t require as much time to grade. Riggs then amended the figure again, sending an e-mail late Friday night that read, “The average amount of time a coach spends grading assignments can range from 5 – 20 [minutes]. Faculty are provided a reference point of approximately 10 minutes for manually graded tasks to help them understand the importance of structuring their assessments and assessment rubrics differently in a distance learning environment in which the goal is scale.”
As Riggs notes, “the goal is scale.” That’s a phrase Higher Ed Holdings uses a lot, and it’s one that doesn’t sit well with some faculty. To “scale,” as faculty understand it, is to take content that once took 14 weeks and deliver it in the space of five weeks, while at the same time growing a class from 20 students to 2,000.
The compressed time frame is not dissimiliar from the way summer courses are offered at Arkansas State. Moreover, distance learning models are often arranged so students can take a series of shorter, intensive online courses -- as opposed to taking several longer courses at once. Even so, some faculty say they're unconvinced quality is retained in the Higher Ed Holdings model. Summer sessions involve longer, more frequent class periods where 14 weeks of content can be compressed into five weeks. With the Higher Ed Holdings model, where all courses are online and coaches have limited grading time for hundreds of students, faculty say there's less assurance that the five week courses will be equivalent to the 14 week courses.
Even as the numbers of students grow in classes, faculty may be expected to do less work. An internal Higher Ed Holdings document, which the company provided to Inside Higher Ed in a slightly redacted form, indicates that faculty can expect to spend three to five hours a week managing a class. Developing the course typically takes one to two weeks, according to the document.
Model is 'Primitive,' Faculty Say
As a professor of education, Grady says she believes part of her duty is to model the best teaching practices. Now that she’s planning a course with Higher Ed Holdings, Grady says she’s found a cruel irony: “All this new technology is being used to revert back to the most primitive teaching model that we’ve ever had.”
While Grady says she feels pressure to adapt, she says she’s not sacrificing her curriculum to meet the limitations of the coaching model.
“There is no way they’ll get the grading done for my course,” she said. “So what? That’s something they’ll have to figure out. You told me I had control of the quality, and I’m going to control the quality.”
“And I hate it,” she added. “Because a lot of the people in this class are teachers I’m doing research with, teachers I know … I think it’s going to kill the relationship I have with those teachers.”
Amany Saleh, a professor of education at Arkansas State, teaches online courses but refuses to teach through Higher Ed Holdings. Saleh says she thinks it’s crucial that she can interact personally with all of her online students in discussions, and that’s something that wouldn’t be practical in a class of more than 1,000.
Given her concerns about the model, Saleh says she's worried about both the future of her own college and the future of teaching in general.
“It’s demoralizing to reduce education and teaching to this level,” she said. “What’s going to be the long-term effect? That I don’t know.”