By Karen Augé, Magazine Editor, Regis University
Regis University has long been a leader in providing online learning for non-traditional students. But for nearly two decades, Regis’ Higher Learning Partners (HLP) division has been on a mission to become a leader in helping other institutions realize the benefits of virtual and distance learning, as well as curriculum exchange.
Now, the development of next-generation software, projections of future enrollment declines ─ and a pandemic ─ have combined to create unprecedented demand for the products and consulting services that HLP provides.
“Course exchange, which has been the lifeblood of this department since 2005, is now getting a lot of attention,” said Thomas Gilhooly, chief executive officer and executive director of HLP.
One institution that took notice? The University of Tennessee. This summer, HLP contracted with UT to create a platform that will academically unite the system’s four campuses, which together serve 50,000 students.
The UT system’s search for a way to develop a more robust online education system led them to HLP, said Karen Etzkorn, director of academic affairs for the University of Tennessee System. “Regis was incredibly flexible and worked to meet the needs of our system and was able to offer a platform in a way that wasn’t one-size-fits-all,” Etzkorn said. “It was adapted for the UT system.”
Tennessee hopes to roll out the shared system with 10 mostly entry-level courses, and grow from there. Students in any of UT’s four campuses, which are spread across the state, will be able to register online for any of the courses offered online, regardless of which location the course originates in.
The partnership has potential to benefit both institutions. Working with the UT system is an extension of Regis’ Jesuit mission, said Adam Samhouri, HLP’s academic and operations director: “We’re here to help enhance learning for students.”
For Tennessee and other schools that share curriculum or offer greater online options, it can be a revenue saver. When an institution offers such options, it lessens the risk of losing summer-school students to community colleges closer to home, explained Samhouri. It also offers a convenient option for students who may fall behind in their courses, or for those who may have had to drop a few courses and, in doing so, put themselves below the minimum credit hours required to receive aid. The result, according to Samhouri, is greater student retention and higher graduation rates.
Regis pioneered online learning in the 1990s, at a time when dial-up modems and fuzzy internet connections were common. The University stuck with it, and so did students, particularly those trying to juggle jobs, families and education. “Regis is a believer in making lifelong learning available, and being open to educating all people,” Gilhooly said.
HLP brings that expertise to its work by providing other colleges and universities with services that enable them to expand professional and continuing education programs, and through its consulting work with more than 100 institutions of higher education.
In 2005, Regis launched an online course exchange program. The Online Consortium of Independent Colleges and Universities (OCICU) has grown to include roughly 300 schools nationwide, which share courses through an online marketplace. As of 2020, that course exchange has had 50,000 enrollments and, Gilhooly noted, “raised tens of millions of dollars for our partner schools.” In addition, HLP has developed course-sharing software that is now in use in 80 schools.
In course exchanges, a student can enroll in a course offered at a college that is an exchange partner. The student pays tuition to their home college, which then pays the partner providing the class. All members of the exchange pay a per-class fee, as well as an annual fee.
Gannon University, in Erie, PA, was a charter member of OCICU. “We got in at the ground level and it’s created immense institutional value,” said Earl “Tex” Brieger, chief online learning officer for the Catholic university. He added that allowing students to take courses from home during summer break has put a substantial amount of money that might otherwise have gone to a state school or community college into Gannon’s coffers. Gannon also values working with other small- to mid-sized Catholic institutions in the exchange.
While Regis has long seen the wisdom of online courses and exchanges, some institutions had been hesitant. “In three years, I visited 70-plus campuses,” Gilhooly said. On some campuses, a rich, sophisticated online curriculum was considered a luxury. Then came the pandemic, which has expedited the need for online learning. Course sharing, in particular, “is one of the hotter subjects in higher education right now,” Gilhooly said.
The impact of the coronavirus on college enrollment, combined with demographic data showing an upcoming decline in the number of traditional college-aged students, means tough times ahead for many colleges and universities. Gilhooly believes that course exchanges could soften the economic blow for many of them. “I don’t know if this will save schools. But it will definitely help schools come together to increase their retention and their graduation rates.”