Rethinking Higher Education Through the Consortial Model

What if we could push an “easy button” and solve many of the issues of transfer and articulation? Such a solution may exist in plain sight, argues John C. Cavanaugh.

October 23, 2019
 
 
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Today’s students are taking increasingly divergent paths to earn a credential in affordable and convenient ways.

According to a 2017 Government Accountability Office study, one in three students will transfer at some point in their higher education journey. Yet students who transfer generally find that roughly 40 percent of the credits they’ve accumulated (and may have debt from) at their first institution don’t count toward graduation at the transfer institution.

The result: many students get discouraged and drop out, and those who don’t often spend more time and money than needed to obtain their credential, leading to heavier debt loads.

Even among students who don’t transfer, many are looking to higher education for a range of options that are increasingly hard for any one institution to offer. For example, students may want a liberal arts education but know they also need a grounding in data analysis and other highly technical skills. They aspire to become techies who are as concerned with ethics as they are with learning the latest programming language. Or they are students -- in health fields, business or the social sciences -- who understand that the greatest challenges and the most interesting work often exist at the intersection of fields.

It’s always been hard for a single college or university to be excellent at many things, much less all things, and that is increasingly the case given the rapid pace of advancement in many technical fields and the mounting pressure on higher education’s financial model. In many cases, what a single institution can offer a student may no longer be enough. And while institutions within a community or region may collectively have the necessary offerings, due to barriers in the transfer of credit, students may unfortunately not be able to access those opportunities.

The solution to the challenges around credit transfer, one that opens up opportunities to students, is clear and straightforward: tighter partnerships and clearer articulation among institutions. The current transfer and articulation process is cumbersome and opaque for students, faculty members and administrators. It’s no surprise that many refer to the process as a maze, with a lack of clear options and routes to ensure students’ time and effort count toward a credential.

We have known about this problem for decades, and policy makers in many states have tried to address it. They have struggled, however, to create seamless systems, bumping up against bureaucratic processes and well-intentioned institution-based quality-assurance guidelines. One particular challenge is that students must earn a certain minimum number of credits from their home institution, which can delay completion and lead to wasted credit hours.

But what if we could push an “easy button” and solve many of the issues of transfer and articulation? Such a solution may exist in plain sight, with significant additional benefits: the consortial model.

The model is built to allow higher education institutions to share academic resources in a way that ensures quality from the outset. Many people are familiar with the consortia of neighboring colleges, such as the Five College Consortium in northwest Massachusetts, the Claremont Colleges or, in our case, the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. The model emerged in the 1960s to prevent colleges and universities from adding new, specialized and expensive graduate-level courses that only a few students would take. At its core, a consortium allows students to take classes from institutions in the consortium and seamlessly count them as “home” credit. The consortia have proper quality controls baked in for the faculty of the student's home institution to ensure the quality of all the courses and for sending and receiving institutions to establish course prerequisites or other appropriate criteria.

In the Washington consortium, the model was quickly applied at the undergraduate level to help with issues of expanded offerings and educational enrichment. Most important, it provided a solution to the credit-transfer challenge. Students can now take courses that fully count at their home institution even though another institution provides those courses.

Each institution has different goals for the model. Some use it to offer new academic minors without needing to add classes on the home campus. Community colleges use it to enable future transfer students to see their potential for success in a university classroom without needing to matriculate. Others use it to ensure students get the courses they need, at the time they need them, to complete their degree on time.

So why hasn’t the model been used more broadly? Fundamentally, it is about trust. Most institutions that employ the consortial model are neighboring colleges and universities with long-standing relationships. But with a third of all students now taking at least one online course, vast new opportunities for partnerships exist today.

A source of innovation in this space has been small private colleges as they look to rethink student engagement and increase student success and completion rates. Through consortia such as the Council of Independent Colleges’ Online Course Sharing Consortium, powered by Acadeum, students can choose from thousands of courses. That ensures that they get the courses they need -- and, even more important, that those courses will count for credit at their home institution and therefore meet requirements for financial aid and factor into their GPA.

Similar to the Washington consortium, colleges can use the model in a variety of ways, including to help students who have failed or withdrawn from courses regain good academic standing by retaking a course they may otherwise have had to wait a year to try again.

In other words, if adopted more broadly, the consortial model -- powered by advances in online education -- could solve many of the problems of transfer and articulation. Students would have more options to choose from and never have to question whether they wasted their money or took on debt for a course that won’t ultimately help them earn a credential.

Senior leadership, particularly the chief academic officer, plays a critical role in creating consortia. Regardless of the primary focus (whether filling empty seats in online courses, expanding program options or otherwise), creating consortia really comes down to the willingness of academic leadership to work with faculty to create a culture of trust and acceptance of a model that reflects the reality that no institution can build every program it desires on its own. Equally critical are accreditors, who should work more collaboratively and creatively with institutions to create innovative shared programs and more flexible ways for students to earn credit at multiple institutions.

Very few higher education challenges are easy to solve, but the consortial model offers a way around the stickiest issues with transfer and articulation. For once, policy makers and practitioners may actually have an “easy button.” The challenge is generating the collective will to push it.

Bio

John C. Cavanaugh is president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

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