04/05/2012 12:18 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2012

One Solution for the Precarious Future of Small Colleges

In discussions about the future of higher education, there's often plenty of hand-wringing over the precarious fate of the hundreds of small, tuition-dependent private colleges scattered throughout the country. With many of them located in out-of-the-way places, their isolation means that merging or even collaborating with other institutions to reduce costs is typically not an option.

But advances in technology can now link together institutions that are separated by thousands of miles. An experiment by a group of 16 liberal-arts colleges and universities in the South might serve as the blueprint for other small institutions looking for ways to maintain a core of academic programs but offer enough variety to attract students.

The concept behind the group's New Paradigm Initiative is simple: the 16 institutions of the Associated Colleges of the South, which include Davidson College, the University of Richmond,and Rhodes College, join together to offer online and blended courses to students on any of the campuses within the consortium, meaning students at one institution are no longer limited to the courses offered just at their college.

Plenty of colleges these days allow students to take online courses from other institutions, of course. But the system designed by these 16 colleges works more like a traditional consortium: Students don't have to worry about transferring credits between institutions and no money is exchanged between the campuses, making the process seamless for students.

"In the past few years, we have looked for ways that the association could behave collectively to help all members that in separate ways we couldn't," says Lewis Duncan, president of Rollins College. "For some things, having 3,000 faculty, 30,000 students and 16 campuses is a good idea."

The initiative will get its start in the fall with a half dozen to a dozen courses at four institutions that have committed so far to the classroom technology, which costs upwards of $250,000. In an effort to maintain the feel of small liberal-arts classes, professors on the home campus of a course will teach in a classroom outfitted with conference capabilities and students on other campuses will take part in real-time, synchronous discussions.

Carol Bresnahan, the provost at Rollins, says she became persuaded of the model last fall when she accompanied a group of faculty members to a Cisco facility in Orlando to try out its TelePresence conference technology. "Our faculty are not interested in 24/7 online education," she says. "The faculty made clear to us that they like the intimacy of the Rollins classroom. Now the technology is finally available to replicate that in real time from a distance."

The first courses to be offered will be those that are available on only one or two of the association's campuses. Languages are the likeliest candidates, Bresnahan says. For example, only Davidson and Richmond offer Arabic. Other campuses have been closing language departments, such as German, as the popularity of various languages has waned. This program could allow a small college to offer the wide variety of languages typically available only at large research universities or elite liberal arts colleges.

The colleges in the association already have some experience in collaboration from a distance, having offered classics courses cooperatively for the last decade. A study of that program, financed by the Mellon Foundation, found that pedagogical practices employed by faculty members spilled over into on-campus teaching and students reported high levels of learning.

Beyond building a collaboration model for other small colleges to follow, the New Paradigm Initiative could also potentially change attitudes about online education at liberal-arts colleges and in other corners of traditional higher education, where distance education gets very little respect. That's for "other people's children." To some in academe, the only education of quality is face-to-face.

Last year, when the Pew Research Center and The Chronicle of Higher Education asked college presidents for their opinions of online education, leaders of four-year, selective private colleges were much more likely than anyone else to say it doesn't offer an equal experience to that of a traditional classroom. Those colleges were also the least likely of any type of institution to offer online courses.

As I listened to Duncan, Bresnahan and Wayne Anderson, president of the Associated Colleges of the South, describe the New Paradigm Initiative, I wondered just how far the model could expand on their campuses in the future. For example, could a student enroll at Rollins but take the majority of his classes at one of the other 16 campuses and still get a Rollins degree? Would all the institutions pare back their departments and course offerings so there would be no overlap between campuses?

Duncan, Bresnahan and Anderson aren't quite ready to go there yet. For instance, students can't major in something not offered by their home campus. Students can't take courses on other campuses simply for the sake of convenience. And for now, the program will include only upper-level courses.

"We have already have concern that this is more of a bold and ambitious future than some of the more conservative faculty are comfortable with," Duncan says. "But in reality, this might become part of a sustainable business model for small campuses."

Under such a model, each campus in the consortium could put most of its academic resources toward making a few academic programs distinctive and leave the rest to the partner institutions. At a time when lower-level courses on many campuses are quickly becoming commodities, such a strategy allows colleges to differentiate themselves.

It also raises some questions, namely, what's the value of a degree from a specific institution if many of the courses were taken elsewhere? But with one-third of students transferring colleges before earning a degree these days, that reality already exists on many campuses. With concerns about the rigor of courses and value of credits coming from other places, forming a consortium as these 16 colleges have done might help put some reasonable quality controls on that student swirl.