Small colleges share online programs, powered by a company

When Steve Tedford, professor of mathematics at Misericordia University, wanted to boost enrollment in the department’s math and statistics courses, he thought of offering elective courses in the high-demand field of data analytics. But hiring a faculty member with expertise to develop and teach new courses was not an option; the Pennsylvania university had suspended tenure in 2020 and had lost faculty positions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tedford investigated whether his institution might partner with a data analytics graduate school to offer students a three-two program—a five-year dual degree program in which students spend three years earning an undergraduate degree at one institution and two years earning a graduate degree at another institution. But those programs were in such high demand that they were not looking for additional students.

Instead, he found Rize Education, a for-profit company that works in partnership with the Lower Cost Models for Independent Colleges Consortium, a coalition of dozens of independent colleges that share information and strategies for institutional financial sustainability. Beginning in the fall of 2023, Misericordia students will have the option of pursuing an online major science data delivered by Rize that is now listed in the university catalog. That could boost enrollment in many on-campus math and statistics courses that serve as prerequisites for the new major.

“I’ll admit, it’s hard to get high enrollment in math and stats, so it’ll be interesting to see if data science kind of pumps up the department in general,” Tedford said. “We’ve been given in writing that if we get a good number of students over the next three to five years, then we’re guaranteed to be able to hire a data scientist and bring everything back onto campus.”

Nationwide, undergraduate enrollment dropped nearly 7 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2021, and the declines were even more pronounced at smaller, less selective colleges, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Since declining enrollment means declining revenue, many institutions have sought course-sharing options for surviving and thriving.

Colleges have partnered with companies to share their courses by way of online platforms in the past. But Rize is part of an emerging trend in which colleges outsource not only the course-sharing platform but the development of course content. Rize, for example, creates the courses in more than 25 career-oriented fields, including data analytics, supply chain management, cybersecurity and public health. Each course is taught by a full-time or adjunct faculty member from a teaching institution selected by Rize from among the members of the Lower Cost Models Consortium. (Courses are not identified or marketed as offered by particular teaching institutions, as these institutions may vary by semester for individual courses.) Some colleges that have partnered with Rize to boost enrollment in high-demand areas have reported excesses within the first year of launch .

“Course sharing and program sharing have happened for a long time before the digital opportunities existed,” said Jo Ellen Parker, vice president for communications at the Council for Independent Colleges, which has its own Online Course Sharing Consortium. She offered several examples, including study abroad programs, internship programs offered by nonacademic partners and in-person course-sharing consortia such as those offered by the Claremont Colleges in California or the five-college consortium in western Massachusetts.

“What digital opportunities do is expanding the speed and scale,” Parker said. When asked about Rize’s model, she said that “it’s good for the ecosystem to have a lot of options available” and that universities should be encouraged to make decisions based on whether a course-sharing option aligns with their mission and values.

Corporate involvement in the delivery of instruction often stokes faculty concerns about academic quality and the potential for technology to replace people. At Misericordia, for instance, faculty members said as much when the Rize courses were reviewed through the university’s regular course-approval process, according to Maureen Pascal, Misericordia Faculty Senate chair, who presided over the votes. Faculty members were concerned that they would exercise less control over Rize’s instructor choices than they did for faculty members who taught on their campus. But Pascal said those concerns were allayed when David Rehm, Misericordia’s vice president of academic affairs, offered tangible evidence that Rize’s program offerings could be considered an intermediary step toward possible new on-campus programs in which faculty members would exercise more control.

Rize’s CEO, Kevin Harrington, considers Misericordia’s plan a “responsible use” of the company’s product. “That’s part of why we do short-term contracts with colleges,” Harrington said, while noting that other institutions join with long-term goals. Rize helps colleges like Misericordia “affordably test out a bunch of new programs quickly, some of which may boom and bring you a ton of enrollment and some of which may not… and the ones that boom, you can always internalize.”

A Focus on Tangible Skills

Rize, which was incubated at Adrian College, in Michigan, manages the course-sharing logistics for participating institutions. The company relies on job market and enrollment data to determine which courses and programs to offer. Then it commissions a leading academic in the field and industry representatives to build a project-based course. Students engage with at least one industry speaker in every course. Courses also have career-service modules in which mandatory students may create portfolios, update résumés, prepare for interviews or conduct informational interviews with experts in the field. Every course assignment is mapped to a tangible skill set in a specific employment sector, and courses are reviewed and updated based on data from postcourse surveys.

Rize is similar in some key ways to the more established and larger Council for Independent Colleges’ Online Course Sharing Consortium, which offers thousands of courses. Like the Rize model, the consortium is powered by a tech company—the course-sharing platform Acadeum, in this case—that offers an online platform and support services. Also, in both the Rize and CIC models, institutions can decide whether to approve individual courses after reviewing course materials.

But the models have one fundamental difference. In the Council for Independent Colleges’ consortium, participating colleges develop and provide oversight for the courses. That is, an institution can open its courses for enrollment across the consortium, enroll its students in courses offered by member institutions, or both. Colleges that partner with Rize, however, enroll students in courses developed and overseen by the company.

In the past, some colleges have hesitated to accept courses produced by for-profit companies.

“With anything like this, the devil’s in the details,” said Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, which launched the historically Black Colleges and Universities–Minority-Serving Institutions Course-Sharing Consortium. In that collaboration, the Southern Regional Education Board also partnered with Acadeum to cross-list courses offered by participating institutions. Though those courses were developed by universities, skeptics warned that too much collaboration could dilute students’ academic experiences. Upon first encountering Rize, some faculty members had a similar fear.

“My biggest concern when we started down this path was ‘would we lose the richness of the Wittenberg experience?’” said Brian Yontz, professor of education at Wittenberg University, in Ohio, where Rize courses in supply chain management and project management will roll out this fall. “But we built an internal policy that limits the number of courses and experiences per semester that students can take through this modality.” Yontz said that the faculty members at his institution did not have the capacity to offer students courses in these areas.

Students and parents have been questioning the value of higher education, according to Susan Dileno, vice president of enrollment at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. For that reason, Mount Saint Mary’s partnered with Rize to offer new certificate programs this fall designed for both graduate and undergraduate students in data analytics, human resource management and digital marketing.

“We knew we would be able to address some of those questions that the public had [and] get these up and running quickly and … do this cheaply because it’s a consortium,” Dileno said. “It doesn’t matter if we have two people in a class, one or 10, because we’re only paying the consortium for each student that is enrolled.” Dileno hopes that some of the certificate students will convert to degree-seeking students. Since Rize enrolls students from multiple institutions, the model works. Though all classes are designed to be completed via an online delivery, some colleges have experimented with hybrid add-ons that bring together enrolled students from their campuses.

The consortium “gives these small little places a way to compete with the bigger universities,” Dileno said.

Rize uses a mixed model to charge universities for its service. Each academic year, a university offering one of Rize’s core academic programs (a major, minor or certificate) pays a fixed fee that typically averages between $10,000 and $15,000, plus $500 per student who registers for a three-credit course, according to Harrington. Much of that $500-per-student registration goes to the teaching institution and the professor teaching the course, according to Harrington.

“We think this aligns our incentives around the student experiences and outcomes as much as possible and ensures we always remain affordable for institutions,” Harrington said.

In addition to helping students prepare for high-demand careers, Rize aims to produce surpluses for the colleges. Adrian, where Rize was incubated, launched 10 new programs in the fall of 2021 that retained 49 new first-year students (29 of whom wereed) and brought in $4 million in revenue, according to Harrington.

Michigan’s Rochester University launched six new academic programs in its first year with Rize that enrolled 22 first-year students and brought in $1.5 million in revenue. In another case study, Tiffin University in Ohio will launch four new academic programs in fall 2022 projected to enroll 15 first-year students with a revenue of $1 million.

“We really believe that these small schools, if they tweak some things, are well positioned 10 to 15 years from now to be the most competitive, most innovative schools that a student can go to,” Harrington said.

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