A thought experiment: a hybrid campus

Imagine you are in charge of a small, rural, liberal arts college with a declining enrollment and an austerity budget. You exist in an environment where a privileged upper tier of larger private schools and well positioned small liberal arts colleges are thriving. They have a powerful draw for the better and wealthier students, and the ability to provide financial aid to the better, less wealthy ones. Increasingly schools in this upper tier are competing with each other to invest in online for-credit course offerings, which threaten to siphon off even more of your applicant pool. You, of course have neither the resources nor the reputation to enter this market. Students, like the population in general, are increasingly attracted to urban settings. And your tenured faculty pool is aging and depleted; you’ve been unable to afford to replace retiring faculty and younger faculty have seen the handwriting on the wall and left for greener pastures.

Your assets are your physical campus, your support staff, mostly local, a few stellar faculty members, supportive alumni, and the sense of solidity in the public imagination that being an established institution with a respectable, if not a stellar, reputation.

In thinking about the challenge that online competition presents, you’re convinced that for people in their late teens, and early twenties, a major benefit of “going away to school” is the independence and the face-to-face interactions and explorations that campus living affords. That’s at least one thing that’s hard to duplicate in virtual space.

Your risky idea for how to take advantage of your physical campus, your institutional presence, and your existing staff, on the one hand, and to turn to your advantage the looming threat posed by online education on the other, is to create a new course catalog for your school, made up of your strongest classroom offerings, and liberally supplemented by online courses that are offered at relatively low cost by well known and highly regarded public and non-profit colleges and universities.

For students, it could be a winning combination. The online courses offer the potential of higher quality and the certainty of lower cost than your traditional classroom offerings, and even when they are not better than what you had before, they entice with the prestige of a “name” institution and possibly with a celebrity instructor.

You figure:

You are in a sweet spot for combining the advantages online and on campus in the same package.

  1. Your precarious financial position means you have little to lose.

2. The intense competition between schools that are providing online courses, combined with the economies of scale associated with having one course serve thousands of students, combined with the fact that the content can be reused semester after semester, should keep the cost of online education low, or perhaps drive it even lower, in the foreseeable future.

3. Your depleted faculty is an advantage, when looked at strictly on the cost side of the ledger.

4. Your tenured, if slightly creaky, faculty and your institutional history, which not burnished to a high gloss, serve to differentiate you from the ed-tech start-up crowd and scammy fly-by-nights.

5. Your rural location will help you keep costs down.

6. No one else has adopted this model yet, perhaps for good reason, but if you dive into these untested and possibly infested waters, and you survive, you will have gained first mover advantage.

The dangers are clear. Will your accreditation be affected? Will prospective students be drawn to or frightened off by the novelty of this approach? Will the schools now providing the online content, continue to provide it in a reliable way? Will constantly changing course offerings make creating a coherent curriculum impossible?

These are daunting considerations, and you’d dismiss your idea as a far-to-risky gamble with your college’s future, were it not for the fact that your alternatives look equally risky.

If you take this risk, or if someone else does, I will be watching with great interest to see if you perish, survive, or thrive.

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