Two universities team up to stay alive, but don’t merge

Colleges don’t like to think of themselves as businesses, but growing numbers these days are facing the harsh reality of declining enrollment and a struggle to make their financial numbers add up. This has forced several institutions to merge in recent months.

But two private universities are trying an unusual partnership approach that stops short of a merger while still aiming to restore financial health.

The universities – Otterbein University and Antioch University – will share costs and jointly manage graduate-level courses and career certificates and badges for adult learners, while maintaining the independence of their course offerings. first cycle.

The hope is to bring in more revenue at lower cost, without compromising their undergraduate operations, university leaders say.

It’s a sort of open relationship, something they hope to expand by integrating other institutions into what they call a “single” university system. Both universities say other private colleges have shown initial interest.

Pockets of innovation

Experts see the arrangement as an example of colleges thinking more collaboratively, as universities without immediately recognizable brand names try to find a niche in a time of changing demographics and growing competition from online vendors.

This nascent network of colleges is not the only example of new types of partnerships. Those in the space say there are pockets of innovation, trying to keep institutions from stagnating.

“I think college presidents are realizing that the business model that has guided higher education for, my goodness, nearly 250 years now, is broken,” says Jeffrey Docking, president of Adrian College in Michigan. . Innovation is no longer a desire, but “a need for survival” because it has become too expensive to continue doing things the old way, says Docking.

Docking College is affiliated with Rize Education and the Least Cost Models Consortium, a system for sharing courses between institutions. Other consortia include TCS Education System, a non-profit integrated system founded in 2009, which allows schools to act in collaboration with shared service organizations.

Many cooperative models tend to focus on financial management – ​​reducing costs by running back offices together, for example – or on a shared religious or geographic identity, such as the Virginia Tidewater Consortium for Higher Education, which describes what he acts as a “regional cooperation”. ”

Antioch and Otterbein’s approach, however, centers on a common philosophy.

One way forward for small colleges is to create a distinctive program model. “What’s interesting about this,” says Mary Marcy, president of the Dominican University of California, “is that instead of doing it independently, they’re teaming up around a common set of values. and mission around social justice and democracy”.

They are reinventing themselves in a partnership without losing their fundamental identities either, which go back to the abolitionist movement. And that may be new, says Marcy.

Anti Prestige?

Colleges like Otterbein cannot rely on prestige to attract students. Its leaders say they would not.

“Otterbein never really cared about prestige,” says John Comerford, president of Otterbein University. “One of our favorite phrases is, ‘Do the right thing before it’s popular.’ And Antioch has a similar vibe.

The emphasis on prestige reflects an overly competitive approach to higher education, Comerford argues, which he argues is actually a form of “elitism.”

“The reality is that prestige metrics tend to measure exclusivity,” Comerford says, adding, “We’d much rather be inclusive and get more people into higher education, even though US News won’t reward us for that. We don’t care.

Instead, Otterbein intends to tap into underserved populations, he says, allowing institutions to work with adult learners who can fit into the workforce and societal needs, thereby eliminating the need for such extreme competitiveness between universities.

Refocus on adult learning

Part of this shift will bring business more into the fold as colleges create stackable degrees — shorter certificates that students can chain together to earn more traditional degrees — as part of their adult learning programs, alongside traditional undergraduate and graduate programs.

College presidents and admissions officers are realizing that one of the reasons people are no longer enrolling in colleges is the availability of jobs for those with badges rather than a traditional four-year degree. years, says Docking.

For Antioch, it’s a refocus on adult learners and a way to continue to develop relationships with businesses. According to William Groves, chancellor of the University of Antioch, employers are increasingly willing to train existing employees to grow within their organization rather than hiring new people. This presents an opportunity to work with students to “tailor programs to their needs” in a way that is fine-tuned, Groves says. It’s also convenient for working adults, he argues.

Otterbein hasn’t really been able to implement her new strategy on her own because it can’t scale to meet the needs of employers, Comerford says. “But we’re hoping this system will allow us to have those conversations.”

Some teachers say they are happy to have the chance to reach more adult and lifelong learners. “The main thing we’re interested in is increasing opportunities for adult learners and graduate students,” says John Tansey, professor of chemistry and faculty administrator at Otterbein. The partnership, he adds, gives them the flexibility to give these students a path to good careers.

The new arrangement also aligns with the institutions’ social justice mission, as it engages underserved learning populations, university leaders say. In addition to courses that may have real content on these topics, expanding services to adult learners will “act on social justice”, say university leaders, by increasing access to career opportunities.

This latest announcement may not be a “tectonic shift,” says Docking, but it is a signal to their communities that they will use the internet and blended learning to change.

The two unanswered questions about this initiative are whether there’s enough student interest to make it scalable and whether it will make a big enough financial difference to keep institutions afloat, Docking says.