The Middle Ground: Are Consortia the Answer to Sustaining Low-Enrollment Courses?

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In addition to facing what seems like perpetual funding cuts, higher education institutions are increasingly experiencing competing pressure to offer and eliminate certain low-enrollment programs and courses. Yet, from these heightened concerns over institutional sustainability has come a focus on collaboration among colleges and universities, leading many to discover a solid middle ground.

During the last year, the creation of African American studies courses and programs became a staple on many lists of demands from college students to their respective institutions. At the same time, scrutiny over such offerings has intensified. Typically having low enrollments, these programs are often some of the first to get the axe when institutional cuts are made. For example, last month, Western Illinois University was forced to discontinue its African American studies major for this reason. In the 2015-2016 academic year, only 13 students chose it as their primary field of study, and just three students graduated from the program in 2016.

But this issue is not confined to ethnic studies disciplines — or public institutions.

“It’s not just an African American studies fight,” Kelly Harris, associate professor and coordinator of the African American studies program at Chicago State University, told the Chicago Tribune. “The humanities and social sciences all feel like [they are] under attack in this environment where universities tend to have a business mentality in the way they look at higher education.”

Many colleges and universities, however, have begun to change how they do business, using higher education partnerships to share resources, costs, and courses in an effort to increase financial sustainability while still offering important but less popular courses. These consortia — often, but not always, made up of institutions that share a common characteristic, such as a focus on liberal arts or a religious affiliation — open up avenues for expansion and innovation for schools strapped for cash.

“Smaller institutions can’t possibly expand in a way that would allow them to address all of their problems on their own,” says R. Owen Williams, president of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), a consortium of small, private liberal arts colleges. “By working together, we can create efficiencies and enhancements that would not have been possible for any one of us alone.”

With 16 member institutions across 12 southern states, ACS formed 25 years ago “to achieve a higher level of excellence through collaboration,” Williams says, along with certain cost efficiencies. While its first formal cross-registration initiative — made possible by a $2.7 million grant from the Andrew W.  Mellon Foundation — is currently under development, the association has delved into course-sharing in the past with the creation of an online community of classics scholars, called Sunoikisis, which has since been adopted by Harvard University.

Through its formal course-sharing initiative, ACS will offer a variety of traditionally small classes — including modern languages and ethnic studies, among others — across member campuses. “We want to try to combine low-enrollment courses and, through that process, create opportunities for students to access the excellent faculty and course offerings of all of our member institutions,” says Williams. “We’re experimenting with various ways of doing this.”

Beyond offering online distance-learning and blended courses to students at any member campus, ACS also plans to create opportunities for them to spend the summer studying at member institutions or traveling to campuses abroad with groups of students from throughout the consortium.

An organization with a similar focus, the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) was founded in 1987 to champion the cause of liberal arts education in the public sector. With the help of a three-year grant from the Teagle Foundation (2014-2015 through 2017-2018) the council is working to build capacity in Native American studies through its Hybrid Course Sharing in Native American Studies program. COPLAC identified six member institutions from across the U.S. and Canada that had either a major or minor in Native American studies, or an expressed interest in developing a program, to participate.

“There is student demand for wider curricular choice on each of these campuses, but [having Native American studies] departments with only two, three, and in one case, one faculty member, each campus alone couldn’t offer the upper-division curricular choice that we can offer by leveraging the consortium,” says COPLAC Director Bill Spellman, who is also the principal investigator on the grant.

Fifteen faculty members across the six campuses work together to offer three online courses each semester on varying topics related to Native American studies. Students interested in taking these classes register for an independent study course, which Spellman says might be the capstone research course for the major or minor at their home institution, and are assigned an on-the-ground faculty mentor at their home campus. This person oversees the student’s progress in the class as well as related administrative tasks.

“The faculty member who is teaching the course does the grading and sends the final grade to the faculty mentor — these two have been in touch throughout the semester — and the mentor at the home institution enters the grade,” says Spellman. “So effectively, the student is taking a course at his or her home institution. It’s just that the actual instruction and the content is being delivered by a colleague at another institution.”

Although faculty buy-in has been strong, the hybrid Native American studies program has struggled to achieve the enrollment Spellman and others had hoped for. Students who do enroll tend to be high achievers and risk takers — those who “are willing to try new things,” Spellman says.

In hopes of increasing student interest, COPLAC will offer two synchronous teleconference courses through the program in spring 2017. This blended format will allow students at each provider campus to attend classes in person and those at distance locations to teleconference in.

“At Truman State and SUNY Geneseo, a faculty member is going to be teaching his or her regular course in a distance classroom,” Spellman says. “So students from, say, the University of North Carolina at Asheville can beam into that classroom and take the course. Distance students are encouraged to be — and it’s preferred that they be — in the respective teleconference room on their home campus. However, [we] will also use technology that enables students to join the class from their personal computer from any site.”

Another way COPLAC is hoping to enhance student interest in these courses is through short videos, in which the professors introduce themselves and explain their course topics, accompanied by contact information. This format, Spellman hopes, will help create the sense of intimacy the hybrid program has been lacking.

“We’re testing whether the modest student enrollment is a function of the fact that most of our campuses don’t offer online [classes], and students may not want that,” he says. “… It is a very different type of course format from what they’re used to at a small, face-to-face liberal arts campus.”

Indeed, liberal arts colleges are known for the intimate nature of their classes and the emphasis they place on personal connections between faculty and students — a far cry from the detachedness of distance education. However, Williams says liberal arts institutions still have something to gain from this type of learning model.

“[At the ACS], we are firm believers in the brick-and-mortar experience for students; one of the most important things our institutions have to offer is that close proximity to and intimate engagement with faculty, and we’re not going to get away from that,” he says. “But if we can do that and at the same time provide opportunities for students through these online offerings … that wouldn’t have otherwise been [available to them], that is what we’re looking to do.”

Cost and Diversity Benefits

Beyond providing students new opportunities, these online and hybrid programs connect faculty across disciplines so they can share expertise and collaborate with their peers. This collaboration, Spellman says, creates a “virtual department that transcends institutional boundaries.”

Additionally, Program Director at the Teagle Foundation Loni Bordoloi, PhD, underscores the cost benefits of such programs.

“It’s not just about creating a community of practice to think about what it means to link technology and the liberal arts and strengthen teaching and learning in the arts and sciences with technology as an aid,” says Bordoloi, who is also the program officer for the Hybrid Course Sharing in Native American Studies program with COPLAC. “… It’s a matter of not only deepening offerings, but also being attentive to the question about cost concerns.”

Adam Samhouri, director of operations for the Online Consortium of Independent Colleges and Universities (OCICU), uses the phrase “low risk, high reward” to describe the arrangement between the 60 institutions that make up the OCICU’s membership. Composed of small- to medium-size schools, most if not all of which are private, the consortium was launched in 2005 by Regis University, a Roman Catholic, Jesuit school in Denver, Co.

To assist other schools with limited resources, specifically those that don’t have the means for building up their online offerings, the OCICU’s main service is cross-registration. Nearly seven provider schools offer more than 1,100 online courses through the consortium, including both undergraduate and graduate courses in areas such as business, religion, art, computer science, nursing, general education, and more.

“[Our arrangement] is low-risk because members don’t have to [let] students take courses from the consortium offerings catalog more often than they want. They decide which courses to offer and how often,” says Samhouri. “Members are using the consortium to fill holes in their own offerings to help students graduate or fulfill a requirement.”

Beyond individual institutional limits, students at any member institution can take any course, as long as they meet prerequisite requirements. According to Samhouri, the most popular ones seem to be those needed to fulfill a major, such as a math or religion course.

Unlike COPLAC and ACS, OCICU campuses focus more on providing these general education classes as opposed to ethnic studies offerings. But Samhouri says that instead of simply discussing different cultures, these types of collaborations are inherently diverse.

“[They offer] a good opportunity for the provider school to diversify its student population by getting students from somewhere else, maybe a different state, who are going to fill empty seats,” he says.

Williams agrees. In addition to students and faculty being exposed to and engaging with peers of all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities at partner institutions, he says the ACS greatly benefits from the diversity at the two historically black colleges and universities in its membership: Morehouse College and Spelman College.

Beyond the organic diversity that comes from collaborating across institutional boundaries, the ACS is taking some intentional steps to improve diversity and inclusion at its member institutions. It recently hired a diversity and inclusion officer to oversee these efforts for the entire consortium and plans to launch a diversity and inclusion initiative across all of its member campuses in conjunction with its course-sharing service.

Logistical Hurdles

When sharing courses across institutions and states, there are many logistics to work out regarding program structure, course credits, tuition and fees, and funding.

Course-sharing through the OCICU is facilitated by Regis University, which handles enrollments, billing and invoicing, and the collection and dissemination of funds between member schools and those that act as providers. Because most OCICU institutions are private, schools don’t have to worry about in- or out-of-state tuition. Samhouri says there’s a fixed fee for undergraduate, graduate, and nursing courses, and some members charge students an additional fee for taking a course through the consortium.

For COPLAC, the issue of tuition is more complicated because it is made up entirely of public institutions, and should its Native American studies program prove viable, the consortium will have to work out a course transfer arrangement and other administrative issues. But the real questions around the program’s sustainability, student demand, and how much it is valued won’t likely be answered until the Teagle Foundation grant concludes in spring 2018.

“I think where the jury is still out, in all fairness and honesty, is [on whether] this is the type of platform and these are the types of courses … that are sustainable over the long run at a public liberal arts institution,” says Spellman. “Right now, we’re not sure; we are only a year and a half into it. … It’s really going to be a question of how much does each institution value having these minors and majors, these wider curricular choices, and I think the test will be [whether] there is enough student demand.”

COPLAC’s Native American studies project, like many similar aspirational and experimental projects in higher education, reveals the importance of grant funding to finding new and innovative avenues for collaboration among institutions. Course-sharing initiatives, Bordoloi says, provide colleges and universities — especially those faced with cutting academic programs — a feasible option for offering certain low-enrollment courses.

Yet without generous grants from foundations such as Andrew W. Mellon and Teagle, most institutions wouldn’t have the wherewithal to launch these “ambitious, potentially risky endeavors,” as Bordoloi describes them.

“I think there is a really important role for foundations to play to encourage institutions, and that’s what external funding can do,” she says. “It can let schools pilot a strategy, see if it works, see if it needs tweaking, and see if it has potential. And at the end of the day, I think we always hope the [programs] will be institutionalized and sustained beyond the life of the grant.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.