Aug 31 2021

Quality Hybrid Courses Key to Financially Sustainable Colleges

A small liberal arts college in Maine finds a way to reduce tuition without impacting quality.

At a time when small colleges all over New England are closing or merging with larger institutions, Unity College’s ongoing efforts to expand distance learning has helped us increase enrollment by almost 300 percent in the past decade — from 540 students to 1,600. And the new student body has proved to be more diverse in every way.

In its 50-year history, Unity has typically seen between 7 percent to 10 percent diversity representation in our student population. Today, that number is nearly 20 percent. On average, our students are also older than before, and 162 are veterans (up from 19 a decade ago). These students come to Unity because we offer them a less restrictive model, flexibility that allows them to fit their education into their everyday lives.

For far too long, we have confused the residential model of the liberal arts college experience with quality. It is undeniable that the residential model remains an ideal. But we are discovering, with our distance and hybrid offerings, that we can design an educational experience that is as effective — perhaps even more effective — by drawing on experts from around the globe to teach our courses.

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Providing Student-Centric Hybrid Experiences

At the beginning of the current academic year, Unity College’s Board of Trustees voted to break away from the traditional residential campus model to focus on a mix of hybrid and online learning opportunities. The persistence of COVID-19 has suspended the in-person components of hybrid learning temporarily, but this was not an issue for us, as we already had a rich distance education curriculum.

To design our five-week courses, a team of full-time instructional designers collaborate with our faculty, deans and other subject matter experts to create technologically sophisticated, interactive online classes. The team works backward from desired learning outcomes to structure curricula. By soliciting student feedback and revising course syllabi as needed, they take a proactive approach to quality assurance.

We employ a wide array of technologies to engage our students while providing maximum flexibility. Our students can record presentations, create websites and produce interactive media in proprietary formats such as ArcGIS, MetaVRse and Amazon Sumerian. We make broad use of tools like WebGL to create browser-based virtual experiences that allow us to blend authentic and simulated experiential learning. And we support access to proprietary software by choosing cloud-based options wherever possible, so that more students have broader access to as many real-world tools as we can provide.

We have also made major investments in back-office systems such as Salesforce and its proprietary student platform, RIO, as well as software tools from CollegeSource such uAchieve (degree audit), TES and Transferology, which allow us to scale our growth. As we work on our next offerings for HyFlex classes, we will utilize a combination of tools to offer the same engaging experiences for everyone.

These platforms are critical to the Unity student experience. But world-class technology, on its own, does not guarantee positive outcomes. We dedicate an equal amount of attention to student advising in this new educational environment. Whether they opt for a traditional campus experience, or a distance or hybrid experience, all Unity students are supported throughout their college years by teams of professional advisers and recruiters who guide them from the initial application process through graduation and employment.

This segmentation of administrative responsibility means that Unity faculty no longer need to take on multiple roles. They can focus on teaching and let our individualized support systems monitor student progress, provide career counseling and help build student communities, even when our students are not on campus.

RELATED: The future of higher education looks increasingly hybrid.

Finding a Way to Lower Tuition

This is not an inexpensive approach. But it is more cost-effective than the traditional model, and we pass our savings on to our students. In 2021, as the college welcomed its largest incoming class, our students in both distance education and hybrid learning took out fewer alternative loans.

By redesigning how we deliver our curriculum, we have gone from undergraduate students paying roughly $30,000 throughout the year, on average, to $11,280. In previous years, funds disbursed included about $3.5 million in alternative loans. This year, that total is about $1 million, with a similar dip in the average amount of PLUS loans.

These are all extraordinarily positive developments. Unity College has managed to provide a richer, more flexible education — to a larger and more diverse student body — at a fraction of the cost.

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