News Column

Facing uncertain futures, small NE colleges look to attract more students

May 10, 2014

By David Brooks, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.

May 10--NEW LONDON -- Colby-Sawyer College is a classic New England school, with 176 years of undergraduate history amid 200 acres of brick buildings and tree-lined walks, nestled in a pretty New Hampshire town.

So why would anybody want to get a Colby-Sawyer degree via Web browser, never touching the campus?

To save about $100,000, for one thing: The school's first online-only bachelor's degree programs will cost about one-quarter as much as a degree "on the ground." It will also require a lot less commuting and provide more flexible schedules.

On the flip side, why would a private college older than 26 states want to offer online degrees, upending an educational experience that has succeeded for so long and cutting its income from some students?

To save itself, potentially.

"We have to think about the next phase for Colby-Sawyer," said Deborah Taylor, dean of faculty. "Over our history, we've been a co-ed academy, a three-year college for women, a four-year college for women, a full co-ed college. We've been flexible and adaptable, and that is essential for the ongoing health of an educational institution."

Colby-Sawyer officials have no plans to cut back on classroom teaching for their 1,400 students inside the school's own walls -- some of which are, indeed, ivy-covered.

The move online comes because officials know the economic reality for small colleges in the Northeast: They have to expand their audience or face trouble.

"This will allow us to serve new groups of students that we couldn't serve at all in the past -- working adults, people at some distance," Taylor said. "We know the demographic issues."

Local student shortage

The problem for schools such as Colby-Sawyer, which lack the global prestige of the Ivy League yet carry more expenses than two-year or urban colleges, is that the number of high school graduates in New Hampshire and other New England states is declining. This group, their core market, peaked in 2007 and is projected to keep shrinking for at least five more years.

Add worries about school loans and debt loads, and it gets harder to attract students to a college that has tuition of $38,000 a year, plus $12,000 for room and board.

Further, Colby-Sawyer isn't that rich. The school endowment is around $34 million, which is nothing to sneeze at, but isn't a huge cushion for an institution with an annual budget of $67 million. It remains heavily dependent on tuition income.

A Forbes magazine analysis of the financial health of 900 four-year private schools, weighing factors such as rate of investment return and dependence on tuition income, gave Colby-Sawyer only a C-minus, about average nationwide.

That's compared with an A-plus for Dartmouth College, which has an endowment of $3.7 billion, and a B for Rivier University in Nashua.

The magazine gave D grades to Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, which has cut back programs and staff in the last year, and New England College, formerly Henniker College. For-profit schools such as Daniel Webster College in Nashua and public schools such as the University of New Hampshire weren't part of the analysis.

The specter hanging over everybody is Chester College, which shut in 2012 after 50 years because of debts and stagnant tuition income, along with Atlantic Union College near Worcester, Mass., which closed in 2011 after 129 years for similar reasons.

Daniel Webster College also was in financial trouble when it was bought by ITT Educational Services in 2009.

That's also the sort of pressure that can lead to innovation.

Distance learning

Colby-Sawyer College's announcement that it will offer online-only baccalaureate programs in accounting, business administration and health care management starting in September is the latest step in the adoption of "distance learning" by traditional colleges.

Considerable attention has been given to college courses online because of free, massive online courses, but they don't offer academic credit and the huge class size -- 10,000 students isn't uncommon -- makes them a different experience.

New Hampshire has been a leader in the area of brick-and-mortar schools offering online courses, thanks largely to Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, a groundbreaking school for online degrees. Many colleges now offer some online-only courses, including Colby-Sawyer.

But creating an entire 120-credit bachelor's degree program that's strictly online remains a big step for a small liberal-arts school. (Technical and engineering schools translate more easily into the Web-only world.)

Unlike single classes, the online degree program required approval from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits institutions of higher education.

Keeping quality

Colby-Sawyer established its first online classes in 2011, following up on suggestions that arose from communitywide planning sessions that began in 2008. It targeted existing students.

"We looked at what our own students were doing during the summer to get ahead or make up work, and noticed certain kinds of courses that many of our students were taking elsewhere, then transferring credits back in," Taylor said.

"We had 10 or 12 classes the first summer. They were well enrolled."

An important part of the development process was finding an acceptable price. The school settled on $300 per credit, with no other fees except textbooks. That's in line with or less than online courses offered by other New Hampshire schools -- and far below residential cost.

It takes at least 120 credits to get a bachelor's degree at Colby-Sawyer, or $36,000 total, about the cost of a single year of residential college. The school has also loosened its restrictions on how many credits can be transferred in from two-year schools, to make getting a degree more affordable for students.

Mandatory participation

All along, said Lisa Hayward-Wyzik, an English professor and dean of distance learning, the big focus was keeping up Colby-Sawyer standards in this new format.

Courses on the Web are taught by full-time staff members with the same curriculum as traditional courses in formats that they choose. Some have their own classroom lectures filmed, others do separate filming, some just do voice-overs of material. It's all based on Moodle, an open-source learning platform used by many schools.

Enrollment is capped at 20 students per class, which is fewer than some traditional classrooms. The classes are asynchronous -- that is, you don't have to be signed on and participating at a specific time -- but components must be completed within certain times, whether it's watching a lecture, writing an essay, answering a quiz or participating in discussions.

"One of our big focuses is to make sure that students feel a sense of isolation but are part of an online community, part of the Colby-Sawyer community," Hayward-Wyzik said. "Isolation is one of the primary causes for students to not do well online and drop out."

College-specific branding of the website is part of creating this sense, but so are mechanics of the operation.

For example, instructors are required to respond to students within 24 hours -- although weekends might be different -- and student participation is mandatory, Hayward-Wyzik said.

To an extent, she said, enforcing all of this is easier online than in the real world, since there is a permanent record of who does what.

"In a classroom, the instructor asks a question, only a couple of students are going to participate and respond to that question," said Hayward-Wyzik, who has taught online English courses. "When I ask my question (online), every student has got to respond. The trick is to not ask a question where there's one answer -- What is 2 plus 2? The answer is 4 -- the trick is to pose a question that requires application of the knowledge."

Just as important, she said: "We ensure students interact with each other" by using the Moodle equivalent of the Facebook "wall," in which everybody sees what everybody writes and can respond.

"We require that the students respond to two or three other students, engaging not only with the (course) content and with me as instructor, but they're also interacting with each other," she said.

More courses to come

Colby-Sawyer is already planning for an environmental science program that will be 100 percent online -- including laboratory work done with kits mailed to students -- starting next fall. If the board of trustees approves, it will implement a program for registered nurses to get a Bachelor of Science, tapping into the growing health care market.

The reality of the program leaves a bigger question: What would its success means for Colby-Sawyer's traditional presence? Will the Web cannibalize the college and render those ivy-covered walls irrelevant?

"I don't think so," Hayward-Wyzik said. "There a coming-of-age experience of college, in which it's critical for many students to come to the campus -- the 18-year-old out of high school. For the slightly older students -- single parents, those who are working, or they live too far away to commute to the campus -- it provides them the same ideal Colby-Sawyer experience."

And not only are online students welcome in New London anytime, they'll be entitled to the same school-oriented items as students on campus.

"Can they have a Colby-Sawyer sticker on the back of the car? Absolutely!" Hayward-Wyzik said.

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David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).

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Source: Telegraph (Nashua, NH)