A Low-Cost Model for the Liberal Arts
Helping colleges and universities to reimagine their business models
- Ben Dedman
Post Date: April 13, 2021
Each fall, administrators at most liberal arts colleges collect data and predict how many students will return the following spring. These estimates help administrators prepare budgets, and missing the mark can have severe financial implications.
Usually, the predictions at Adrian College, a liberal arts college in Michigan, are close—off by just five or so students. But one recent spring, Adrian lost forty more students than they expected. “In exit interviews, we found out exactly what it was that made students leave: cost,” says Jeffrey Docking, president of Adrian College.
The challenges that Adrian faced—a vicious cycle of decreasing enrollment, increasing tuition and fees, and unsustainable tuition discounts—are straining institutions across the country, leading to cuts in liberal arts academic programs, layoffs of support staff and tenure-track faculty, and the closure or consolidation of dozens of campuses.
“The number one problem in higher education is the cost of attendance,” says Michael Alexander, president of Lasell University. Though institutions like Lasell often dole out massive amounts of financial aid to students, the aid rarely meets the full needs of low- or middle-income students, disproportionately limiting educational opportunities for students of color and first-generation students. “That is cruel,” Alexander says.
In 2015, Alexander was talking with a group of other university presidents when he challenged his colleagues: “Everybody says the business model is broken. But who is doing something about it?”
Alexander joined forces with colleagues at eighteen other colleges to create the Lower Cost Models for Independent Colleges Consortium (LCMC). Five years later and with more than ninety member institutions, LCMC is helping liberal arts colleges and universities to reimagine their business models; pool their resources; and collaboratively offer dozens of online majors, minors, and certificates in high-demand professional and technical fields—with little or no initial investment from members.
“Through this academic program–sharing model, the small privates of the world have rallied together and can compete with the large research universities,” says Lillian Schumacher, president of Tiffin University, an LCMC member.
Though LCMC has not yet met its ultimate goal of lowering tuition by 30 percent across the board, its efforts are already paying off for many members. Adrian College has added nineteen degree programs since 2019 in fields such as supply chain management, public health, electrical engineering, and computer science “for an upfront cost of zero,” Docking says. “You can imagine what it would normally cost to start nineteen new academic programs, hire faculty, and provide them with office space, salaries, retirement plans, and everything else.”
With help from these popular programs, Adrian has overcome the challenging enrollment environment. In fall 2020, as undergraduate enrollment decreased by 4 percent nationwide amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students enrolled at Adrian in record numbers. And in spring 2021, the college exceeded its predicted retention rate by ninety-two students.
“That is the biggest mistake that colleges are making right now: they’re only passing new programs in ones and twos, hoping that that will make a significant difference in their enrollment,” Docking says. “Why not start ten, or even nineteen? These are degrees employers are asking for, students want, and it doesn’t cost anything.”
Building a More Equitable Model for the Liberal Arts
In its early years, LCMC acted like most other education associations: collecting dues from members, applying for grants, and helping campuses develop innovative programs. A lot of the work was successful. Lasell University introduced Lasell Works, a lower-cost attendance model for working students, and began an initiative to use low-cost open educational resources in 100 percent of its classes. St Joseph’s College of Maine partnered with a local hospital to lower tuition for students pursuing nursing degrees. And Houghton College developed a degree path for immigrants who otherwise would not be able to afford tuition.
But despite these individual successes, LCMC leaders wanted to do more to help their institutions and students thrive. “How can we keep our liberal arts core and our liberal arts majors, yet at the same time offer our students other opportunities that may be too expensive to do on our own?” asked Carol Leary, president emeritus of Bay Path University and a member of LCMC’s steering committee.
In 2019, LCMC partnered with Rize Education, a company incubated at Adrian College, to implement a new model of collaborative academic programs available to all LCMC members. In these new degree programs, students continue to take most of their courses as usual at their home institution, including their general education requirements and many of the classes in their major. The on-campus experiences are supplemented by a handful of online courses—between two and seven, depending on the discipline and degree program—that allow member institutions to provide new majors in high-demand fields like digital marketing, neuroscience, and data analytics. Each online course is hosted and supported by Rize and taught by faculty from LCMC member institutions. Because a portion of tuition for each online course is shared with the consortium, helping to pay for faculty and Rize’s full-time support staff, LCMC member institutions no longer need to pay membership dues and have no other upfront costs.
By combining on-campus and online experiences, students get all the hallmarks of a high-quality liberal arts education: small class sizes, intensive faculty mentorship, and high-impact practices like writing, research, internships, and community-based learning. The learning outcomes and curricula for each online program are developed by leading academic experts in partnership with the faculty at LCMC member institutions who teach the courses. Each program also gets extensive feedback and endorsements from major industry leaders such as Google or Unity Technologies.
“Liberal arts education is valued by CEOs and hiring agencies—they love the student who can think and has broad exposure to different experiences,” Leary says. “This collaboration provides the best of the liberal arts and the best of the hands-on career programs that prepare students for a job immediately upon graduation.”
Tiffin University, a private university in Ohio, was an early adopter of distance learning, offering its first online programs in the mid-1990s. Faculty at Tiffin direct and teach two degree programs through Rize: human resources management, which the university has offered students on campus for years, and neuroscience, which Tiffin developed specifically for the consortium.
“We’re experts in these areas, and now we can leverage it, offer it to other schools, and become recognized for these degrees,” Schumacher says.
Rize’s support staff builds each course within its learning management system, and they work closely with students and faculty to troubleshoot technical problems. “The faculty can really focus on teaching and supporting students,” says Charlie Anastasi, head of growth at Rize.
Catharine Weiss, associate professor of fashion at Lasell University, directs and teaches in LCMC’s supply chain management program. In the major, students take three online courses through Rize, supplementing a variety of other courses and experiences at their home institution. In the first course, Logistics and Forecasting, students learn the fundamentals of transportation systems and warehousing, explore forecasting formulas, and use software programs to model and track supply and demand. In the second course, students study sourcing, operations, and the broader implications throughout multiple industries. The third course, a hands-on practicum, allows students to interact with a real company in their local area. Because all three courses are taught by liberal arts college faculty, “students are encouraged to do extensive research and writing like they would for any liberal arts course,” Weiss says.
The program’s curriculum was coordinated and built by Weiss, colleagues in Lasell’s School of Business and Fashion, and Rudi Leuschner, associate professor and program director of the master’s of science degree in supply chain management at the Rutgers University Business School. “Rudi is a rock star in the field of supply chain with a terrific reputation,” Weiss says.
The supply chain courses fit nicely as a specialization within existing business majors, and they have become so popular that the program has added additional sections.
One of Weiss’s favorite aspects of the courses is the broad appeal to students and programs at various institutions across the country. “It’s really cool to teach students from all over the United States, from California to Ohio,” Weiss says. Students bring their local contexts into their work, bonding over shared experiences and challenges. “It was interesting to talk about supply chain in the midst of the pandemic, as everybody had difficulty finding toilet paper or some other product in their areas.”
Institutions can use the degree programs in various ways—as an entirely new major, minor, or certificate program; to enhance a degree already offered on their campus; or as standalone courses that can greatly expand the electives they offer. Every major includes a capstone, and many campuses work with Rize to create unique assignments, local community partnerships, and collaborative projects for their students. “Our members get creative in making the programs distinctly their own,” Anastasi says.
Students in the online courses receive mentorship and support on multiple fronts—from faculty, Rize’s student support staff, and on-campus counselors and academic coaches. And students on some campuses are supporting each other, meeting together as interdisciplinary cohorts to socialize and complete their coursework.
“The relationships that are being created through the consortium are fabulous,” Leary says. “Our students at Bay Path are not isolated in western Massachusetts. They have access to student colleagues all across America.”
Maintaining Quality in Online Learning
Though the courses are shared openly across the consortium, each member institution can decide what courses they offer. At all member institutions, any majors, minors, or certificate programs offered through Rize go through the same governance, accreditation, and assessment procedures as other on-campus programs. “Quality control begins with the faculty governance process, from the people who really know what’s going on in academia,” Docking says.
Rize’s full-time staff collects data about students’ learning and their progress in courses from the learning management system. The staff also gathers feedback from surveys that students complete throughout their program.
“The Rize team is constantly looking at the next steps we have to take to make sure that this is a quality experience, that we’re keeping up with the technology, and that our students are getting the right academic majors they need for the future,” Leary says.
Each new major or course added to the Rize platform undergoes careful consideration among faculty experts, industry professionals, the LCMC steering committee, liberal arts faculty within the LCMC, and the Rize staff.
“They are expanding carefully. Everything is done with qualitative and quantitative research, and areas of growth have been vetted with major corporations across different industries,” Weiss says.
Most important, every new step that the LCMC takes focuses on advancing its goals of making a high-quality liberal arts education available to students from all income levels and backgrounds.
“It can be a retention tool; it can be an access tool; it can be an equity tool,” Schumacher says.
Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.