Willing Partners, Not Shotgun Marriages: Launching A Central Resource To Expand Non-Traditional Access Through Partnerships

The EvoLLLution | Willing Partners, Not Shotgun Marriages: Launching A Central Resource to Expand Non-Traditional Access through Partnerships
Responding to the growing demand from non-traditional students for tailored postsecondary experiences, the University of Wisconsin system has created a central resource to support access across all its campuses.

In December, the University of Wisconsin System announced the creation of the University of Wisconsin Extended Campus, appointing Aaron Brower as its founding Executive Director. UW Extended Campus (UWEX) is a new entity within the UW System, aimed at growing adult and professional degrees and noncredit programs. UW Extended Campus supports and partners with all 13 campuses of the University of Wisconsin System, building on an innovative collaborative model that was created almost 10 years ago by UW-Extension’s Division of Continuing Education, Outreach and E-Learning. UW Extended Campus embodies the 100-year old Wisconsin Idea—it extends the physical boundaries of the UWs across Wisconsin and beyond. In this interview, Brower discusses the unique partnership model developed and used by UW Extended Campus that serves adult and professional students.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): When serving adult and professional students, why have campuses within the University of Wisconsin System found it beneficial to develop and deliver collaborative programming rather than launching offerings independently?

Aaron Brower (AB): First, readers of The EvoLLLution know that adults and professionals already have demanding home and work lives and seek education that adapts to them versus the other way around. Attracting these students and helping them succeed requires different kinds of educational models and different kinds of student supports, which therefore require different operations and systems created specifically for the adult and professional population.

So rather than each UW campus creating its own dedicated resources aimed at adults and professionals, UW campuses can leverage the resources that UW Extended Campus has built—from market research, to instructional design, to direct student support, to protocols to share student records and transcripts.

Additionally, by collaborating on these programs and degrees, faculty and instructors can be pulled together across different campuses, meaning no one campus needs to independently mount every program.

Collaborative programs leverage strengths across all the UW campuses. It’s a way to increase “systemness,” to use Nancy Zimpher’s term. This is a vision that our current UW System President, Ray Cross, readily promotes. In theory, collaborative programs are a no brainer. In reality, it’s a challenge to break through the “go it alone” culture on campuses, and to build partnerships that are truly student centered, that foster student success, and that are sustainable and equitable among all partners.

Evo: How does the UW Extended Campus’s collaborative model work?

AB: UW Extended Campus (UWEX) has developed dedicated resources to successfully educate adult and professional students. We partner with all UW campuses—using their faculty and instructors, and their degree-granting authority and governance processes—to create bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as noncredit certificates and programs.

The UWEX collaborative model has evolved through trial and error, and now follows a fairly standard path. All programs are built to be revenue positive, which requires very careful market research on the front end to make sure we pick programs with enough student demand to more than cover all partner costs.  We do this market analysis whether we initiate the program ourselves or whether campuses come to us with an idea. Once we decide to move forward with a program, we then identify the right format—whether it’s for credit or noncredit, or whether it’s “traditional” online or competency based—that will make it most attractive and useful to the students we seek. We then solicit interest among UW campuses, and for those interested, we engage their faculty leaders to create a shared curriculum. Other aspects of the program are created collaboratively as well. For example, each student receives academic advising from their campus while receiving proactive success coaching from us. UWEX and the partner campuses prepare materials for approval from our Board of Regents and our accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission. Additionally, if a program is in the direct-assessment, competency-based format, UWEX takes the lead in the Title IV application to the U.S. Department of Education.

UWEX builds a business model that estimates all partner expenses and enrollment growth to break even within three to five years. We then create a Memo of Understanding (MOU) that governs expectations for the educational and financial partnership.

One hundred percent of the startup funds for programs are provided by UWEX and we reimburse actual expenses on the campuses until the program becomes revenue positive. Once enrollments generate enough revenue to exceed expenses, the net is split equitably among all the partners, including ourselves. Historically, about 70 percent of gross revenue returns to the campus partners, with our share used to replenish start-up funds and to maintain and grow our dedicated adult-serving capacities.

In some ways, we act as an in-house online program manager (OPM) for the UW System, however, a critical difference between us and the OPMs is that we are a full program partner versus a service provider. In our experience, we found that providing one-off services (just marketing and recruitment, for example) was not effective for long-term viability of programs because no capacity is built at the campus. Instead, programs are strongest, and students are most successful, when we partner fully with campuses on the entire program. We each have an equal stake in the program’s success—from program identification to development, and then during implementation, throughout the student lifecycle, from lead generation to student graduation.

Finally, it’s important to note that no UW campus is required to participate on any of these collaborative online programs. We want willing partners and not shotgun marriages. We make the barriers for collaboration as low as possible for all partners. And the pressure is on us: UWEX must continually prove its value based on its ability to sustain partnerships and revenue so the entire UW can be successful with adult and professionally oriented students.

Evo: Why isn’t this type of partnership model more common across other state systems?

AB: Well, the devil is in the details. It’s taken almost 10 years for this model to evolve and take strong root within the UW System. One challenge we continue to face is the natural inclination for those on campuses—especially at our large R1s but also at the regional comprehensives—to want to “go it alone.” These campuses grew during a time when funding was expanding (peaking in the late 1970s/early 1980s) and when the vast majority of students were traditional age and seeking fulltime residential education. Campuses managed their own destiny, even within a state system.

Of course, both the finances of higher education and the populations seeking education have changed, but the go-it-alone culture remains strong. For some on the campuses, it can feel like partnering on collaborative programs is surrendering rather than adapting to the new realities in higher education.

Changes in the economic realities facing institutions and the changing population seeking their education didn’t occur overnight, but for many campuses it felt like these changes came on overnight. The trends were slow at first, almost unnoticed. Their impact seemingly escalated geometrically in the last decade. So it’s not totally crazy that the go-it-alone culture remains strong on some campuses.

However, it’s not just institutional culture that gets in the way of collaboration. Real structural barriers have to be overcome as well. Over an institution’s history, educational models and student supports evolved to be optimized for traditional, residential students. But, and again as readers of The EvoLLLution know, non-traditional and traditional students need different things. The same resources (advising, for instance) can’t simply be redeployed one to the other.

State systems, too, evolved through their histories to best support individual campuses, creating policies and practices that support a federated-but-not-coordinated model of campus collaboration. Just one example: To implement the collaborative programs, UW Extended Campus needed to write its own software code to share student record across individual UW campuses, and policies needed to change to support and govern shared student records.

Bottom line: partnership models make obvious sense within state systems of higher education, but the details of a successful partnership are important. The MOU that we develop is detailed, and it represents the fact that UW Extended Campus is an equal program partner and not a service provider. All partners have an equal stake in the success of the program and the success of its students.

Evo: With a recognized reputation in innovating online education, especially with the UW Flexible Option, why go through the trouble to rebrand and create the UW Extended Campus?

AB: The entire UW System went through a major restructuring process beginning in 2017. One result of that restructure was to recognize the need to increase access to a quality UW education for adults and professionals. As is true in most states, enrollment growth will come from attracting the segment of the population with either some college and no degree, or who seek new educational opportunities for career change or career advancement. And the desire for higher education is very strong for this population. In Wisconsin alone, adults with some college but no degree represent about 20 percent of the state—1.25 million people—with over 400,000 of them saying they are actively interested in seeking some form of higher education.

UW System recognized that a coordinated and strategic approach was needed to grow this population of students and provide them with a quality UW education. The idea was to take the highly successful UW-Extension Division of Continuing Education, Online, and E-Learning and give it a spotlight role in the center of UW System’s growth strategy. Thus, the UW Extended Campus was born.

That said, we spent a lot of time detailing UWEX’s new relationship with the UW System administration and across the UW campuses. UW campuses needed to see the UWEX as a trusted, neutral and equal partner, not as an arm of the UW System setting up shotgun marriages. As President Cross said early on in the development of UW Extended Campus, “You can’t be seen as ‘We’re from the government and we’re here to help.’”

UW System understood the need to support UWEX’s ability to pick and develop programs using transparent, data-based decisions, based solely on market factors, rather than political or other nonmarket factors. UW System likewise understood that UWEX needed authority to negotiate finances and other arrangements, governed by the MOU process.

Ultimately, UWEX will have to continually demonstrate that its partnerships are successful, sustainable and equitable, and that these partnerships do a better job attracting and graduating adult and professional students than what the UW campuses could accomplish on their own.

And it has been the case that UWEX’s collaborative model has been extremely successful: Over the past 5 years, enrollments in our collaborative programs have grown by 50%, during the same time that enrollments across the UW have declined about 1%. Retention rates across our collaborative programs are greater than 70%, which is about double the national average for comparable programs and comparable populations. It’s hard to argue with this kind of success!

Evo: What’s next for UW Extended Campus?

AB: We have aggressive growth plans to add two to three new programs each year by 2025, aggressively growing the University of Wisconsin online presence for adults and professionals. The reputation of the UW is extremely high, and the range of programs we offer, especially when including competency-based formats, is unparalleled.

This is not the time for universities like those in the UW to sit back. Adults and professionals need more options for quality education. They need us in the academy to continue to innovate in the online and competency-based space. The Wisconsin Idea is alive and well across the UW institutions, and I have to say that I’ve never been more optimistic about the UW’s collective entrepreneurial spirit. Equally as important, adult and professional students need states, accreditors and the federal government to support innovation through regulatory and policy change. Let’s say I’m at least cautiously optimistic in that arena, too.

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Key Takeaways

  • By launching a centralized and coordinated strategy via the UW Extended Campus, universities across the UW system are improving how they serve non-traditional audiences without having to reinvent the wheel or misallocate limited resources.
  • Through its partnership model, the UW Extended Campus is an equal partner and full-service “in-house OPM” that helps UW programs go to market and succeed.
  • UW Extended Campus currently runs about 20 collaborative programs using “traditional online” and competency-based formats with all the UW campuses through its partnership model. It’s been very successful. The UW Extended Campus and the UW System is planning to grow its online presence aggressively over the next decade.