Published on 2020/01/13

The EvoLLLution | Consortia Hold the Key to Lifelong Learning
The consortia model minimizes many of the operational roadblocks that can stifle innovation while also delivering more seamless access to educational opportunities for students across their lifespan.

Picture the following: As a learner at a postsecondary institution, you have access to a reasonably extensive list of courses each academic term. Usually, these options are sufficient to meet your needs. Your goals and circumstances present a challenge, though. Due to your life and career constraints, you need quicker access to courses that are not offered this term. Fortunately, you attend a member of an extensive consortium of institutions, so you simply look elsewhere among the members, find the course, register, and maintain your progress. All of the courses you take through a partner accrue toward your credential, are not subject to formal credit transfer processes, and make your learning process seamless.

Sadly, this scenario is a fantasy for most postsecondary learners in the U.S. For the most part, learners do not attend institutions that transcript courses taught elsewhere as if taught by them, let alone attend institutions that are part of a formal consortium. They are too often caught in the academic crossfires of course reviews, credits that do not accrue to a meaningful credential, and, worst of all, forced repeating of courses. This leads to a great deal of student frustration, lost time to completion, depletion of financial aid, and possibly increased debt.

It does not have to be this way.

There are a few examples of institutional consortia of various sorts that actually practice the opening scenario. These involve institutions that come together either intentionally or through a common need, united in the understanding that a student-centered approach to learning, credit accrual, and credential attainment can be a seamless, collaborative process. One such consortium is the one I oversee: the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area (CUWMA).

Founded in the mid-1960s by five graduate universities in Washington, DC, CUWMA resulted from the realization that no institution would ever have sufficient resources to own everything they would desire in their respective libraries and could not teach every course or have every academic program conceivable. As a result, they created CUWMA to solve this problem. The regional research libraries eventually spun off to form their own organization, but CUWMA retains its focus on academic collaboration. At its current membership of 17 universities whose home campuses are roughly the beltway geography enrolling about 300,000 students, CUWMA reflects nearly every type of nonprofit postsecondary institution, including highly specialized institutions under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense. Member institutions are located in two different regional accreditors’ territories: the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

CUWMA is a complex organization with several activities and subsidiary programs, but its heart remains the academic collaboration. Collaboration occurs in several ways. At the center, as discussed in the opening scenario, is cross-registration. Students who meet the appropriate criteria have the opportunity to take courses at other CUWMA member institutions up to roughly 12-15 credits. These courses are transcripted as if taught by the home campus, so do not involve credit transfer. Even though tuition varies substantially across CUWMA member institutions, cost is not a barrier to participation for an otherwise eligible student. All students who participate in cross-registration pay tuition to their home institutions only. To offset the additional marginal costs of participating students to the receiving institution, members have negotiated discounted, tiered payments that are made by the home institution on behalf of the student. All of these policies and negotiated institutional payment rates are fully transparent in the policy manual available on CUWMA’s cross-registration page.

The benefits of true academic consortia such as CUWMA go well beyond students’ ability to take courses at other member institutions, as important as that is. Over our 50-plus years, institutions have made strategic decisions and programmatic investments based on the availability of cross-registration. Those decisions have included faculty hiring and shared/dual programs. For example, rather than hiring a solo faculty member to cover several courses, departments will rely on cross-registration for some courses while they build more depth in another area of excellence, for which they will be the beneficiaries of similar decisions by other institutions (and receiving cross-registered students in the area of strength).

Likewise, departments and colleges look for opportunities to combine areas of excellence into unified, dual degree programs that neither has the resources to create and launch on their own. On this note, there is considerable discussion within CUWMA on how this take on collaboration could greatly benefit community colleges’ workforce programs for which these institutions are under constant pressure to launch and update. By sharing resources, institutions can dramatically lower startup costs and time to launch, and even increase the program expansions they would have been able to do under a traditional non-collaborative model.

Finally, because consortia create a culture in which students become accustomed to taking courses at multiple institutions, institutionally diverse consortia can become the lifelong educational home for adults throughout their lives.

Imagine starting one’s postsecondary education in a workforce program at a community college, and, through a combination of individual decisions and support from employers, continuing to learn by moving across institutions within the consortium. All of the individual’s learning would accrue toward the appropriate skill and credential, and learning acquired through experience would be recognized.

The dream portrayed in the opening scenario is true within a cadre of like-minded institutions that put the student first by collaborating in a consortium. The truly unfortunate part is that such consortia are rare when the opposite should, and could, be true. Yes, it is different. No, it is not hard. For once, let’s take the easier path on behalf of our students.

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