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Academic Partnerships and the Awakening Giants

Academic Partnerships and the “Awakening Giants”

by Randy Best and Tom Korosec

Thomas Jefferson hoped upon founding the University of Virginia that it would "prove a blessing to my own state and not unuseful perhaps to some others." How modest that statement turned out to be. America's state universities have grown since Jefferson's time to become the envy of the world, serving the educational, economic, cultural, and healthcare needs of their home populations and beyond. They have played a pivotal role in creating "the American century." With the help of the GI Bill and subsequent student aid programs, they built the nation's middle class.

Today, a number of forces are threatening state universities' dominance and their prospects for continued success in the 21st century. They are facing rising costs at the same time they are being hit by reductions in state subsidies. Ever-increasing tuition and fees are pushing them beyond the reach of low- and middle-income families, impeding their mission to furnish quality education to the widest array of students.

At the same time, new technologies are turning the university landscape upside down. Online education, which research is beginning to show can be made to equal the campus learning experience, has been pushed to the forefront by a new wave of for-profit universities. Students have embraced distance learning's on-demand convenience and the time and money saved through forgoing commuting or room and board. As a result these schools have grown exponentially despite their sub-par graduation rates, high tuition and lack of tradition or prestige.

Academic Partnerships is a service company that helps professors move their campus-based classes online and recruits students. It considers state universities sleeping giants that when awakened will transform higher education across the nation, if not the world, to the benefit of huge under-served populations. As Peter Drucker, the leading 21st century management expert, said, "Whenever change outside of an organization is greater than change within an organization, that organization will ultimately fail." Academic Partnerships enables state universities that embrace technological change to rapidly transform postsecondary education. The collaborative provides students who choose online education because of its access and affordability the high-quality state university programs they deserve.

More than four million college students enrolled in at least one online course in 2007, according to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The lion's share of them chose entrepreneurial for-profit institutions, which are adding a combined total of tens of thousands new students a month, or a major new state university every 30 days. Three of four of the out-of-state universities most attended by first time Texas undergraduate students are for-profit online universities.

Why are so many high-qualified students choosing for-profit online institutions with graduation rates in the teens or lower, far below the 55 percent national average for traditional colleges and universities? The hundreds of millions of dollars these for-profit institutions spend each year on marketing alone cannot explain their widening reach. The answer instead is that students find distance learning's anywhere, anytime classroom a strong attraction, according to a March 2009 survey by the League for Innovation in the Community College, an international consortium. Working-age students who want to advance their education while meeting the time demands of their jobs find online instruction particularly appealing. Cost was also a factor, the survey found. In this instance it was the added cost of commuting.

Between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and fees rose a stunning 439 percent, compared to a 106 percent rise for consumer prices overall. No other sector of the economy, not even healthcare, came close to matching the skyrocketing cost of university tuition. Given the demographics of America's new students, higher costs present a steep barrier to an increasingly large portion of the nation's university-ready population. "The continuation of trends of the last quarter century will place higher education beyond the reach of most Americans and will greatly exacerbate the debt burdens of those who do enroll," the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found in a 2008 report. Perhaps this explains why, as the center found in a 2006 study, a smaller portion of young people and working-age adults are enrolling in education and training beyond high school than a decade ago.

At the same time that students from the lowest-income families need state colleges for their relatively reasonable costs, those very schools are being constrained by growing pressures on state budgets that limit their ability to hire more professors and build more classrooms. Burton Weisbrod, an economics professor at Northwestern University and author of Mission and Money: Understanding the University, summed up the consequences in a recent interview: "The demand for more education will increase, but the supply is problematic."

Educators facing these constraints who believe they have a moral obligation to teach students who want to learn, and not just a pool of the most select or most affluent, see distance learning as a compelling option. It expands their programs beyond the constraints of bricks and mortar, or funding shortages.

Academic Partnerships is already playing a pivotal role for state universities that wish to expand access and serve more students. In 2005, Hurricane Rita caused more than $40 million in damages to the Lamar University campus in Beaumont, Texas. The school, a member of the Texas State University System, lost about 500 students and needed a strategy to recruit students.

The school began offering online graduate education classes in partnership with Academic Partnerships in October 2007. More than 4,000 students enrolled online in the graduate programs of Lamar University's College of Education and Human Development, moving it to number one in the state from number 13 out of 17. Based on enrollment, it now hosts one of the largest graduate programs in education in the United States.

Lamar President Jimmy Simmons said most of the highly qualified students who have enrolled in Lamar's online graduate programs simply could not attend classes on campus in Beaumont. The university did not have the resources to launch a widespread campaign to recruit these students. It hired Academic Partnerships to provide that service. "For a moderate size school like Lamar University to grow and flourish in the intense competition for students, we needed outside help and an innovative strategy that would level the playing field," said Simmons. "We knew we could never match the resources of the proprietary online universities. We had to be creative and aggressive to win and distance learning had to be part of the strategy. The point is that whether we choose distance learning or not, our students are."

As a technology resource to state universities such as Lamar University, Academic Partnerships helps professors move their courses into an electronic format, recruits students and provides a support system to enhance student success.

Academic Partnerships does not hire, compensate or evaluate faculty, nor does it provide curriculum or instruction. Admission standards and tuition rates are determined by the university, as well.

At Lamar, online students meet the same enrollment criteria as campus-based students and online courses are all taught by its own faculty. The same is true at the University of Texas at Arlington, where Academic Partnerships is supporting their online RN-BSN program. The university's school of nursing, recognizing that 60% of all RNs in the workforce have either a Diploma or Associate Degree in Nursing, wanted to provide a more cost effective and accessible RN-BSN program in addition to their current options. Elizabeth Poster, dean of the school of nursing, described her reasons for starting the On-line RN-BSN Academic Partnership Program to DiscoverNursing.com, an online newsletter: "We are committed to offering educational options along the continuum of nurses' careers and knew that nurses needed a program that offered access to a BSN education while allowing them to balance the demands of school, work and family. We are pleased to offer innovative options to nurses by changing the delivery of our educational programs to become more accessible and affordable."

Nurses and teachers already committed to careers and family need accessibility and affordability from a state university. But these are two important qualities also in demand by the 20-year-old retail clerk who must work and live at home if he and his family are to afford tuition, or the college-age parent who needs to keep a job to pay the rent, or the 26-year-old who goes into the workforce and learns, not too late, how few opportunities the information age affords those without a degree. None of them can find an easy way to campus. Yet they all are entitled to walk in the vast fields of knowledge our "not unuseful" state universities have cultivated since Jefferson's day.

Randy Best is the founder of Academic Partnerships.
Tom Korosec is a Dallas-based freelance writer.

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