Three struggling Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education locations plan to pursue an increasingly popular strategy in higher education: building a new “virtual campus” to train working adults who have a college degree but no degree.
In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, president of Clarion University of Pennsylvania, described the online operation, which wouldn’t go live until next year, as an attempt to “aggressively compete with Southern New Hampshire “University and other online vendors who” stole “students from Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania virtual campus, as described by Pehrsson in an interview with The Chronicle, would replace existing online courses for undergraduate and graduate students from the Universities of Clarion and Edinboro and the California University of Pennsylvania, three campuses of the Pennsylvania system in the western part of the state, combine in the process of merging into one unit. It would also join a handful of similar efforts by the public higher education systems in recent years to reach the 36 million Americans with an ungraduate degree – a particularly attractive market for public colleges, which are facing enrollment problems given the dwindling number of high school graduates in many parts of the country.
However, competing with the established national players in online education is a major challenge. The so-called mega universities have a big head start and deep pockets, two advantages that public universities are unlikely to be able to overcome, or will be difficult to overcome.
Obviously, some public systems are intrepid. For example, the University of Massachusetts announced last year that it would partner with Brandman University, the online branch of Chapman University in California, to build UMass Online and better serve working adults across the country. “Quality, affordability and flexibility in higher education are needed more than ever to address the worrying lack of economic mobility,” said Marty Meehan, president of the University of Massachusetts, in a statement. The deal is still pending final approval.
In Pennsylvania, competition for students between institutions like Clarion and Edinboro and Southern New Hampshire intensified last year when the latter signed an agreement with the 14 community colleges in Pennsylvania. The deal guarantees a student discount for community college students moving to Southern New Hampshire for an undergraduate degree. “Before, they were always on our radar as competitors,” says Pehrsson, “but now it has become a bit more personal.”
There’s nothing personal about a competition, says Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire. He rejects the idea that his institution stole students from Pehrsson’s institution, even though “perhaps the students it was thinking of checked their options and thought we would be best suited”. In any case, he welcomes more efforts to educate adults because “the need is enormous”.
A head start
When Pehrsson says she plans to compete with Southern New Hampshire, she wants to do so on a modest scale. In southern New Hampshire, 139,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled online in the fall. The new consortium in Pennsylvania hopes to reach 10,000 students in five years, says Pehrsson, which would double the current online enrollment among the three universities.
Even that can be difficult given the competition for online students, says Robert G. Atkins, executive director of Gray Associates, a college consultancy firm. “If you want 5,000 students, you have to fight for everyone,” he says.
Mega universities have spent more than a decade building and improving well-funded and sophisticated operations that work to the extent that few startups can hope for. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year marketing themselves to college students nationwide. Southern New Hampshire alone spends $ 139 million a year on advertising. While state colleges have the benefit of a recognizable regional brand, the amount they would have to spend to attract students in their states or beyond could easily run into the millions.
Even with their local brands, public colleges will have some catching up to do in their own backyards. Google search data compiled by Gray Associates shows Pennsylvanians searched southern New Hampshire nearly 124,000 times in 2020, more than three times more than the Universities of Clarion, Edinboro and California in Pennsylvania combined in the past 12 months.
Mega universities have also developed recruitment and admissions processes to make enrollment as easy as possible for working adults. A request on one of their websites triggers a call within minutes. They speed up transcripts and transfer credits in a matter of days. They have classes that start every few weeks. “The traditional public agency marketing and approval process doesn’t work well online,” says Atkins. “If you don’t adjust your schedule to respond to the students, you really are not competitive.”
All the details of the virtual campus in Pennsylvania have yet to be finalized. There is a business plan in the works that the Board of Governors is expected to review at its April meeting.
Just because competing with the mega-universities could be a big challenge doesn’t mean nobody should try, says Michael B. Horn, senior strategist at Guild Education, a college advisory firm.
There is room for a handful of state universities to make significant leaps in online education, he says. The need for adult education is so great that even the mega-universities are only scratching the surface. Public colleges have regional brand awareness that is difficult to achieve and provide students with access to local alumni networks that job-seeking graduates cannot get from national players.
Public universities also have a potential advantage in their actual presence in the state. “Having the name of a Pennsylvania college on your diploma is very different from the name of an online college on your diploma,” says Atkins. While most working adults study online to avoid having to travel to campus, having a physical campus to come to for some classes or events can be an added incentive for some students – especially if that campus is nearby is located.
One way for public colleges to get into an argument online is with a partner, like UMass did with Brandman. By working with an existing vendor, Horn says, “You can skip some of that investment” that is required to build a program from scratch. Purdue University tried something similar when it bought for-profit Kaplan University in 2017 to start Purdue Global, despite the deal suffering financial losses.
Building a program from scratch can be costly. The state of California spent $ 120 million on founding Calbright College, an online-only community college that opened in Fall 2019 to offer certificate training to working adults. But the college lost millions of dollars when it enrolled fewer than 1,000 students, and lawmakers voted to cut its funding from the state budget for fiscal year 2021, though it ultimately survived.
States don’t necessarily have to put $ 100 million into an online start-up to get it right, Horn says. “But I think you need to have a roadmap where you can eventually pay off when the experiments you’ve done pay off,” he adds. If the Pennsylvania virtual campus is to compete with Southern New Hampshire and other big national online gamers, even on its own turf, it will require a significant state investment, and Pennsylvania has not “shown an appetite for buzzing dollars lately.” into the higher system, ”says Horn.
“You need a start here,” adds Horn. “You can’t start from scratch and patch it up with tape.”