Richard Merriman Jr. is the former president of the University of Mount Union, in Ohio. Bryan Boatright is the assistant vice president for academic affairs and university registrar.
Like almost all other small private colleges with residential campuses, the past three months have tried our community in previously unthought of ways. The coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, forced us to shut down our campus in a matter of days and move all courses online.
But, in some ways, the situation has forced our institution into a promising experiment with online courses — drawing in the roughly half of our faculty who prior to March hadn’t taught online or even used our learning management system.
As we map our way through this crisis and beyond, we have a critical backup that could benefit many institutions like ours: membership in a course-sharing consortium. This consortium — the Council of Independent Colleges’ Online Course Sharing Consortium — allows us to navigate the current environment more nimbly, giving our students access to far more courses specifically designed for online and allowing us to better accommodate students’ increasingly complicated lives and demanding schedules.
This summer, three dozen students are taking courses in subjects such as programming, calculus, Spanish and child psychology. The consortia courses are taught by experienced online faculty, include access to robust student services from the teaching institution and our university, and are mapped to core requirements in the students’ degree programs. Critically, this ensures that the courses count toward their GPAs and help them stay on track, or get back on track, to graduation.
Our university compensates the teaching institution and our students pay our regular summer tuition rate, allowing for seamless billing and financial aid. It’s proven to be a win-win for our students and our institution. Since introducing the consortium courses in late spring 2019, we’ve hit a tipping point with student interest in online courses, and enrollments — including in the consortium and courses we teach directly — were increasing even before the pandemic.
In turn, this has reduced the number of courses students are taking elsewhere over breaks, whether at institutions in their hometowns or at those with more robust online offerings, and then have to transfer back. The transfer process has proven to be time-consuming and frustrating for staff and students. At worst, it results in wasted credits and extra cost when credits don’t transfer back in ways that meet degree and GPA requirements.
Moving to the consortium model, on the other hand, not only puts us in good stead to weather the current crisis, but it also helps us adapt to longer-term changes in the higher education landscape. Like at many institutions, the University of Mount Union’s demographics have been rapidly changing. We’re a “traditional” university, with 70% of our undergraduates living on campus, yet about 60% of our students work, on par with the national average, and many are juggling additional demands from family or other commitments. The majority aren’t working for extra spending money, but rather to pay for essentials or to help support their families. A third of our students are Pell Grant-eligible. We expect these numbers to increase in the coming year.
Even before the crisis, Mount Union students were asking for more flexibility around when and how they study — including opportunities to take classes online.
We quickly recognized the answer to this issue could be working with a consortium, which could help us provide students with more flexibility during the academic year and better options over the summer. We decided to start by focusing on students who were most at risk of dropping out and therefore needed to retake specific courses or pick up extra credits over the summer to get back on track.
The results of our first pilot, in the summer of 2019, were incredibly promising. Eighteen students participated and earned an average of better than a B grade. As a result, four were saved from suspension, five were taken off academic probation and six were able to regain athletic eligibility. Additionally, our institution earned $38,000 in direct tuition dollars, plus an estimated $62,000 in additional fall tuition from the students who would have otherwise been suspended or dropped out.
This gave us confidence as we expanded the model this summer to offer the consortium courses to all students. We are now seeing students whose grades suffered because of the disruption to the spring semester sign up for summer courses through the consortium.
The model will also help students return to Mount Union in the fall, even if we don’t have face-to-face instruction. This ensures they can complete their education with us and that we continue to bring in needed revenue. Moreover, it allows us to provide flexibility, decrease time-to-degree, and offer a more vibrant, fuller curriculum than we otherwise could as a small college with resource constraints. (The university is not yet offering its own courses through the consortium, though we plan to do so starting this fall.)
In that way, the consortial model stands to strengthen the entire ecosystem of small colleges and colleges without robust online courses. Higher education has always depended on collaboration to improve our academic community. Now, course-sharing may be our savior. For us, what began as an effort to help students at risk of dropping out has the potential to ensure our institution continues to serve all our students.