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CSU online campus growing, but slowly

Colorado State University’s third and exclusively on-line campus – CSU Global – isn’t growing the way founders thought it would despite a harsh economic climate that usually drives non-traditional students back to school.

But the 15-month-old school, the first of its kind at a research university in the western United States, is expecting to break even when the fiscal year ends June 30. It already has 11 graduates to its name in its market-driven degree programs.

In a recent interview with EdNews, CSU spokeswoman Michele McKinney said 950 students, two-thirds of them undergraduates, are now enrolled in the venture, created to attract working adults and other non-traditional students unable or unwilling to attend a bricks-and-mortar campus. About 300 other students are still enrolled but not currently taking courses.

CSU Global has spent the $12 million it received as a loan from the CSU Board of Governors to get started, and plans to pay it back in 2013, a year later than planned. The question is, how will that happen with so few students?

A market-driven approach

The school was created to compete directly with such private online powerhouses as the University of Phoenix, to expand CSU’s reach, and to bring desperately needed revenues to one of two of Colorado’s premier public research universities.

The focus is driven almost exclusively by the marketplace. Courses are taught by less costly adjunct faculty specifically trained in teaching online. Class sizes are kept small – no more than 20 students per class. Tuition rates are comparable to other online programs — $299 per undergraduate  credit hour and $399 per graduate credit hour. Courses are offered in eight-week, accelerated formats. Its students tend to be working people who pay as they go rather than take out loans or rely on financial aid.

For instance, Colorado law enforcement agencies have been extremely responsive to CSU Global’s criminology specialty offered in conjunction with a major such as Public Management. Officers in remote parts of the state can move up the ranks by advancing their degrees online.

On the face of it, there’s nothing but potential.

“Eventually, probably half of Americans pursuing higher ed will do it online,” said Rich Schweigert, chief financial officer for the CSU system who was instrumental in getting CSU Global off the ground. “If you believe that and start punching those numbers using the demographics of K-12 and (beyond), there are tens of millions of students available for something like this.”

Don’t even get him started on the global potential.

Numbers don’t pan out

But so far, the students aren’t materializing as expected.

Original projections called for 21,000 students to be enrolled within five years, though that number has now been reduced to 7,300 by 2013. Early this year, 25 percent  – or 10 total positions – were slashed from the Global campus staff roster due to a lack of revenue.

Tenure track faculty still have questions.

“Worry is always there when you launch something new,” said Richard Eykholt, CSU Faculty Council chairman and a physics professor. “We already have our own continuing ed program online. There are concerns about the brand, concerns about what kind of competition will occur with our own online programs.”

Eykholt said faculty were wary of CSU Global in the beginning because of the lack of faculty input into its planning. CSU Global was a key piece of former CSU Chancellor and Fort Collins campus President Larry Penley’s agenda. Penley resigned with little explanation one year ago.

At this point, Eykholt said faculty are taking a wait-and-see approach. They haven’t passed any resolutions regarding CSU Global, but there is concern that the burning desire to be profitable could trump concerns regarding competition.

Still, Eykholt does see the need for more higher ed options at a time of shrinking state support.

“If students have to go online, this does give them an option of something that is through an established university as opposed to a for-profit organization. Serving community is part of our land grant mission.”

Tactical changes

Using new target enrollment goals, growth is slow but steady. For instance, 499 undergraduate students were enrolled by the end of August. That figure grew to nearly 600 by the end of October. Graduate student numbers aren’t climbing as fast as CSU leaders had hoped, however. Only 267 graduate students were enrolled at the beginning of this semester, with the number climbing to 333 by late October.

To boost graduate student numbers, the school has reopened its master’s program in Management and revised its master’s degree in Teaching and Learning to better meet market demands.

Schweigert said all things considered, things are going well now.

“People who watch the industry and we talk to – from consultants to others — they’re impressed by the growth rate right now. It wasn’t the original business plan projected. But those were projections at best. Now, we have real numbers and a much more keen sense of the marketplace.”

CSU Global has made some key changes in an effort to revitalize.  The campus has whittled a field of 100 applicants down to 25 as it attempts to hire its first permanent president to take over from a string of interim leaders.

Global staff backed off traditional and costly mass marketing efforts, deciding instead to focus on outreach – human contact visits – to government agencies and businesses that might have a need to retrain or further educate employees through tuition reimbursement programs.

CSU Global’s academic programs are now being built from the ground up based upon demand rather than through a top-down approach that had staff hired and programs planned before students enrolled. CSU Global hired a consultant, a former top executive at University of Phoenix, as it attempts to push the campus to the next level. Global is also hiring someone to focus exclusively on supporting students so they stick with the program since attrition for new students hovers near 10 percent.

Lessons learned

Schweigert admitted creating a financially healthy online campus amounts to basically trial by fire.

“There is no road map. The private corporations in this business are very protective of how they build these.”

Before launching, CSU officials examined labor data and other potential sources of students, such as community college transfers. But one critical thing was missing, according to Schweigert:  “What it didn’t take into account was the outreach that has to occur.”

Schweigert said people don’t go out on a whim on a Saturday to buy a car; and they don’t spontaneously decide to spend thousands of dollars on an unproven online degree – even one with CSU in its name.

“The original business plan had a very aggressive growth plan. We’ve pushed those numbers out,” Schweigert said. “Still, the future is just unbelievably bright…We think by the end of 2013 we’ll be in the 8,000-plus student range, although it could be a lot higher than that. We’re remaining conservative for now.”

Across the country, various public universities and college systems are creating similar online programs. CSU Global is different from most in that it doesn’t count any regularly enrolled students among its student numbers. It is entirely separate from the course and degree offerings available in Pueblo or Fort Collins or through continuing education.

The University of Illinois had a similar venture in its beginning stages, also called Global Campus, that the system’s governing board voted to axe last spring after two years. Dozens of degrees were awarded, according to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, an online news source.

It folded in large part due to abundant competition from lower cost online degree providers and faculty concern that the Global Campus would water down the Illinois brand because it was less rigorous.

CSU Global Dean of Academic Affairs Becky Takeda-Tinker is more than aware of what happened in Illinois, but said, in her experience, the academic integrity of CSU Global’s courses “far exceed the rigor that I’ve seen at other online campuses.”

As for lingering concerns about competition, Schweigert said doesn’t see any instance where CSU Global will compete with any other CSU entity.

“We market it in a completely different space. If a student wants a premier experience, he should go to our campuses. Global isn’t designed for that….This is our way  of extending what we’re supposed to be doing to everyone.”

EdNews reporter Julie Poppen can be reached at jpoppen@frii.com.

CSU Global at a Glance

Graduates: 11

Currently enrolled students: 950

Bachelor’s programs: Business Management; Applied Social Sciences; Public Management; Organizational Leadership

Master’s programs: Management; Organizational Leadership; Teaching and Learning

Master’s degree prerequisites: A 3.0 GPA from a prior university or college. Students with a GPA below 3.0 still can be admitted based upon professional experience or motivation.

Bachelor’s degree prerequisites: More than 12 credits from an accredited college or university or an associate’s degree.

Partners: Colorado Department of Corrections; Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing; Colorado Department of Labor & Employment; Colorado Department of Revenue; Colorado Department of Transportation

Average student age: 36

Student gender: 55 percent female

Where students live: 88 percent Colorado

Web site: www.csuglobal.org

Accreditation: Graduate programs are accredited via an extension of Higher Learning Commission accreditation of the Fort Collins campus; undergraduate programs have a similar accreditation agreement with the Pueblo campus. CSU Global will seek independent accreditation down the line.

Tuition: 2010 tuition is $299 per undergraduate credit hour; $399 per graduate credit hour. Special rates are available for military and law enforcement personnel and public school teachers.

Adjuncts: 39

Staff: 35

(Source: CSU Global)