UI's Global Campus starting small

UI's Global Campus starting small

URBANA – Global Campus isn't exactly spanning the globe – yet.

Right now, 10 students are taking classes through the University of Illinois' new virtual campus – three in a bachelor's-completion program in nursing and seven in electronic-learning programs – and the majority are from Illinois.

Given the $3 million spent on Global Campus this year, that's not an ideal student-cost ratio, as one trustee dryly noted last week.

The startup costs will average out over time, of course, and administrators expect more than 100 students to be signed up by September, when several new programs roll out. Within three years, they hope to enroll the equivalent of 750 full-time students – the "break even" point for Global Campus.

Administrators acknowledge some early hurdles in recruiting, and trustees who heard a Global Campus update last week advised them to be flexible to be sure they hit the right market.

"Startup companies often end up doing business very differently" from what they originally planned, said board Chairman Lawrence Eppley. "You can't be rigid."

In particular, trustees suggested the program target current UI students who have trouble getting into high-demand courses on the university's three campuses. That could help students finish their degrees on time and save money, Eppley said.

"I think we're missing a huge market, an internal market," he said.

That's "been on our radar screen from the start," said Chet Gardner, who oversees Global Campus as special assistant to UI President B. Joseph White.

Gardner noted Global Campus has been up and running for just three months, too soon to judge its success.

"I've said all along that first real test of marketing and recruiting will be in September," he said.

While the nursing program has had difficulties, the E-learning programs have been unexpectedly popular, attracting teachers, college administrators and corporate employees hoping to manage or teach online learning, he said. Twenty new students signed up for the eight-week term that starts in May and another 25 are expected in September, well ahead of original goals, he said.

The nursing program is a bit of a puzzle. Market research showed "very high demand" for the program nationally, and initial recruiting drew 3,000 inquiries, he said. But only three people ended up enrolling.

Many of those interested were hoping to finish their bachelor's degrees quickly and inexpensively, Gardner said, and they were intimidated by the prerequisites required.

"We have high standards," Gardner said, noting the College of Nursing is ranked in the top five nationwide. "It is a demanding program."

To qualify, students must be registered nurses who have completed a number of tough prerequisite courses. Most applicants needed to take four to six courses before they could enroll, Gardner said.

To create a "pipeline," the UI made arrangements for students to take the prerequisites online through Parkland College, and 15 to 20 should be ready to enroll in Global Campus by September, he said.

Global Campus also plans to shift to more targeted marketing for that program, advertising in nursing journals and pursuing contracts with hospitals or other health-care organizations that have tuition-reimbursement programs for their employees. Toward that end, trustees last month approved discounts of up to 15 percent for group enrollees.

Global Campus initially advertised on the Web and contracted with "lead-generation" firms that run Web sites where students can request information about online programs. Their names are forwarded to the UI for a fee.

That model may work well for other Global Campus courses, but it wasn't a good way to find students suited for the nursing program, he said.

Plans to start another group of nursing students in May had to be postponed until September.

"I'm confident we're going to get this nursing thing figured out. It's just turning out not to be as easy as we thought," Gardner said.

At trustees' direction, the UI will also package all online courses under the Global Campus name. The idea is to use it as a "gateway" for students to find Global Campus programs as well as the 75 online degree and certificate programs offered by the UI's three campuses – sort of one-stop shopping for virtual learning.

How do Global Campus courses differ from other UI online classes? Both are designed by tenure-track UI faculty. But Global Campus courses are accelerated – eight weeks instead of the traditional 16 weeks. And enrollment is not capped. If you qualify, you're admitted. Administrators reported last week that Global Campus had spent just half of the $6 million budgeted for the first eight months of this fiscal year, and they expect to come in $2 million under budget. The program was launched with a loan from the university that has to be paid back, and Gardner said he's been cautious about expenses so far.

Next year the program will need all that money as programs expand and new recruiters, course designers and academic counselors are hired. The staff of 35 will grow to 42 next year and eventually hit 50 or 55, he said.

The biggest challenge for Global Campus is maintaining the UI's academic standards while attracting enough students to make it profitable.

"Maybe the market demand is for cheap and quick. For us to maintain quality, it may be difficult for us to give that product," said UI Trustee David Dorris.

The university wasn't interested in the profitable model used by private-sector online universities: high enrollments and lower admission standards, which can lead to lots of dropouts, officials said.

White said his concern from the start was to not "cheapen a University of Illinois degree. We've certainly not done that."

"By our own choice we put ourselves between a rock and a hard place, in terms of maintaining quality on one hand and achieving financial success. I have no doubt this is what our vision must be, what our strategy has to be. Is it hard? It's extremely hard."

Similar ventures by Cornell and New York University in the 1990s failed, mostly because they spent too much effort developing technology and ran out of money before they could create academic programs, Gardner said.

"I don't think it's time to wave the white flag," said Trustee Robert Sperling. "There's a need for this if we do it right."

By this time next year, Gardner said he'll have a clear picture of whether Global Campus can be self-sustaining.

"I remain very optimistic."

Global Campus will always attract a strong contingent of Illinois residents, who are famliar with the UI name, he said. But it's stirring more interest from across the country and even overseas, said Becky Vinzant, director of student services.

History may be on his side. Now 40,000 students strong, the Urbana campus opened 140 years ago with 44 students.

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