Enrollment at Virginia Commonwealth University has declined four years in a row and the university needs growth strategies.
One possible answer: online education. VCU has approximately 1,000 fully online students out of approximately 28,000. It plans to grow to over 2,500 online students by 2028.
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But this kind of growth may not be fast enough. VCU’s board of visitors met for their annual retreat on Friday and discussed at length the need to rapidly expand the school’s online education.
“We’re way behind on e-learning,” said VCU board leader Ben Dendy. “We need to act quickly.”
How far VCU will go is hard to say. Some universities that have turned to online education have gone all out. One such school, Arizona State University, saw enrollment skyrocket and now has 140,000 students, nearly half of them online.
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Much closer to home, Liberty University in Lynchburg has nearly 100,000 students, more than 80,000 of them online.
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VCU already offers two fully online undergraduate programs – social work and homeland security. Social work classes are held remotely Monday through Thursday from 4:00 p.m. to 6:40 p.m. The Homeland Security program offers weekly live sessions lasting 60 to 90 minutes.
To create the programs, VCU employed Noodle, a company that designs online programs. This semester, VCU added two more, one in marketing and accounting and another in public relations and advertising.
The next fields of study will likely be in technology, business, and healthcare, where the demand is highest.
Online students pay the same tuition as those attending in person. But administrators are still considering what kind of fees online students should pay. Some online students might still be interested in visiting gyms and attending basketball games, which are covered by athletics fees. Students from other cities and states probably wouldn’t.
These days, it’s not enough to just offer in-person learning, said Tomikia LeGrande, VCU’s vice president for student enrollment and success. Students now expect to learn in a flexible way that meets their interests, whether fully online or in a hybrid model.
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Expanding online offerings would allow VCU to reach students in other cities and states who would not normally consider the school. High school graduates who cannot afford to relocate for college have two options: the local community college or online education. The addition of online courses brings thousands of new students within reach of VCU.
“For our survival and prosperity, we must actively seek out these new markets,” LeGrande said.
Enrollment at VCU has fallen for four straight years, from around 31,000 in 2018 to 28,400 this year. Declining student numbers led to budget shortfalls, forcing the university to leave vacancies unfilled.
“It’s a really competitive atmosphere,” said Todd Haymore, board member of visitors.
One in four students accepted to VCU choose to enroll, a figure known as a university’s “yield”. This number may seem low, but it is higher than most public colleges in the state. The return of the University of Virginia is 45% and that of William & Mary is 27%.
The areas of study within VCU with the greatest opportunity to increase their returns are humanities and sciences, engineering and business, LeGrande said. Peter Farrell, another board member, added that nothing will stimulate student interest more than ensuring that the programs are the best and the financial aid is the highest.
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VCU unveiled a new marketing campaign this semester in which it describes VCU with words beginning with “one,” such as “unparalleled opportunity,” “unleashing innovation,” “undeniably nationally recognized for diversity,” and ” unstoppable”.
He bought ad space on the US News & World Report website and placed his new posts on the landing pages of various colleges in the state, including the College of William & Mary, George Mason University, James Madison University and Virginia Tech.
Arizona State is an online education model. On Friday, the VCU Board of Directors spoke via Zoom with Michael Crowe, President of ASU. He explained how his school has gone head-first into online education over the past 20 years.
Arizona State offers in-person training, fully online courses for degree-seeking students, and basic online courses such as English or math for students who are not still ready for college-level courses.
Arizona State accepts all students who meet a certain academic threshold and does not require standardized test scores. It offers 450 different study programs for undergraduates and has a constant focus on innovation, Crowe said.
Michael Rao, president of VCU, said he understands there will be pushback, perhaps from faculty. In the world of higher education, online courses are often considered taboo.
At Arizona State, Crowe explained how he dealt with resistance. If he got 80% buy-in from a department, the university would go ahead. The remaining 20% could resign if necessary, he said. Too often, universities tend to be top-heavy and resistant to innovation.
“The list of people who don’t want us to succeed is long because we question the basic model,” Crowe said.
Another obstacle to adding online courses is figuring out how to expand VCU’s current offerings. The university cannot expect professors to figure out how to put their programs online. Do that, and VCU will only get lectures streamed on Zoom, LeGrande said. The university hires staff whose job it is to design quality online educational programs.
Rao expressed a sense of urgency. “It’s time to go,” he said.
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