The Chronicle of Higher Education
May 1, 1998
Small, Private Colleges Brace for Competition from Distance Learning (Selingo)
By Jeffrey Selingo

Small regional colleges are girding for a struggle that some of them fear will be their toughest yet: a battle to protect their profitable continuing-education programs from a new breed of big-name competitors.

But unlike the colleges' traditional rivals -- similar institutions in nearby communities -- the new competitors are just as likely to be in the next time zone as in the next county. Distance-education technology will soon allow respected research universities to look for potential students, and potential revenues, in the back yards of small colleges.

The fear among some private-college officials is that the same students who now enroll in part-time degree programs on those campuses might soon find distance-education programs that are less expensive and more convenient -- and that offer diplomas from better-known universities.

Why are small regional colleges so concerned about continuing-education programs? Many of them lack large endowments and are heavily dependent on tuition income, including money from lucrative continuing-education programs. In Pennsylvania, for example, at institutions such as Beaver College, near Philadelphia, and Allentown College of Saint Francis De Sales, graduate and continuing-education students generate about one-fourth of tuition revenues.

Such programs are particularly valuable to the colleges because the costs are comparatively low; the courses rely on existing facilities and faculty members. Like airlines that get the most out of planes by keeping them aloft as much as possible, continuing-education programs generate money from classrooms that would otherwise be empty and from faculty members who are eager to pick up a little extra cash -- but who don't have to be paid additional benefits.

In Pennsylvania and in other states with prominent research institutions or extensive state-university systems, small colleges are watching closely as their larger neighbors expand their distance-education programs.

Many private-college presidents in Pennsylvania complain that their undergraduate enrollments already have suffered in recent years, as Pennsylvania State University has turned many of its two-year satellite campuses into four-year institutions. Now the presidents also worry that Penn State's growing distance-learning program will dip into the applicant pools for their continuing-education courses.

"Private colleges have certain advantages -- one being that they have been in a particular market for years," Mr. Mitchell says. "But a small institution, all by itself, can never compete with the range of courses and convenient times that Penn State can offer, all with the support of state taxpayers."

Officials of large universities say small regional colleges have nothing to fear, for now. The mission of "World Campus," Penn State's newly expanded distance-education program, says Gary E. Miller, associate vice-president for distance education, is not to copy what smaller institutions in the state are offering. Rather, the university plans to offer specialized courses to students who wouldn't be able to take such classes where they live. For example, the first courses offered by the Penn State program when it was started this year were to train turf-grass managers. A total of 14 students, from five time zones, signed up.

Still, Penn State's decision to call its distance-learning program "World Campus" is likely to make small-college presidents toss and turn. The university plans to offer some 25 certificate programs, with an enrollment of 5,000 students, by 2003, although Mr. Miller says it has no desire to "replicate well-established programs" of private colleges in the state.

"If we took that approach, students would pick the local institution over us," he says. A university's reputation does not dictate success in the distance-education market, he argues. "If it did, what's driving the enrollment of the University of Phoenix? There's an institution with no undergraduate alumni, no research, and no football team."

In fact, the same distance-learning threat that worries regional colleges makes even some research-university officials anxious. The ballyhooed plans for distance-learning programs offered by on-line institutions including Western Governors University and the California Virtual University mean that "the concerns of small colleges are no different than ours," says John Wiley, who is provost and vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

He compares the battle between large and small colleges to the competition between neighborhood grocery stores and chain supermarkets. Many of the smaller stores continue to survive because they've found a niche, he says. What's more, a new market of non-traditional students is emerging, he adds, "and almost everyone involved in education will want a piece of it."

In Pennsylvania, regional colleges have found strength in numbers. Many private institutions have joined with community colleges and public libraries to form a distance-education consortium that secures grant money, provides technical support, and trains professors on member campuses. The network, created with $2-million in seed money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and called CAPE/Petenet, allows small colleges to compete with the likes of a Penn State in offering distance-education programs they could never afford on their own, says the Rev. Daniel G. Gambet, chairman of the consortium's board of directors and president of Allentown College.

Such "competition through cooperation" is necessary if small colleges expect to retain their share of the continuing-education market, he says. Time-strapped adults are searching for programs that "offer the maximum of convenience and consistent quality," and small colleges can no longer provide both on their own. "I don't think you can ignore delivering courses in a way that's convenient if much of the competition is doing it," Father Gambet says.

But many private-college officials are not yet ready to shut off the lights in their classrooms in favor of powering up more computers. Many continuing-education deans say they would prefer to adopt one aspect of distance education's approach -- offering classes when they're convenient for students -- without using a computer or a television monitor.

A. Richard Polis, dean of graduate studies at Beaver College, says he has talked about ways to use classrooms on campus between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. "It's clear to me in reading e-mail from students that they're wide awake at that time," he says. Another proposal at Beaver is for a summer master's-degree program in English and another in the humanities. Students would attend classes in the summer and hold discussions via e-mail the rest of the year.

Other institutions have already copied one advantage of distance education by bringing their classrooms to the students. Carlow College, in Pittsburgh, has opened four off-campus sites in the suburbs in the past several years. "We have students come from Ohio who would never come into the city," says Mary Catherine Conroy Hayden, a Carlow vice-president.

Lebanon Valley College offers classes in its master's-of-business-administration program in three locations. The two off-campus sites are in corporate office buildings, reducing the college's overhead costs and enlarging the pool of potential students.

Such changes represent another cycle in the evolution of continuing education, says Elaine Feather, director of Lebanon Valley's continuing-education programs. Ten years ago, private colleges began to offer weekend programs to accommodate changing life styles and work schedules, she notes.

Will distance learning replace classroom teaching during the next cycle of continuing education's evolution?

Officials of small regional colleges still want to believe that they'll always have continuing-education students to fill their classrooms in the evening. They know that on-line education has its roots in the rural correspondence courses introduced by universities in the 19th century, and that subsequent technological advances allowed teachers to reach students by radio and television. None of those distance-learning methods ever replaced the traditional classroom for most continuing-education students. "History shows that distance education has generally increased access to education," agrees Penn State's Mr. Miller.

The competition that regional colleges now face from distance-learning programs is similar to the competition that many of the colleges faced a decade ago, when more institutions started entering the continuing-education market.

At the time, private-college officials now recall, they feared dire consequences for their continuing-education programs. But enrollments never dropped. Those officials now hope that they're just as wrong this time as they were 10 years ago.

"I'm more concerned about Penn State offering graduate programs 20 miles away than I am about their distance-education programs," says Mr. Polis, of Beaver College. "We're both going after the same type of students with our on-campus programs."

When Beaver awarded its first graduate diploma in education, 25 years ago, Mr. Polis says, only two other universities in the Philadelphia area even offered graduate degrees. Today, more than a half-dozen other institutions in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania offer at least one graduate degree, and there are dozens of certificate programs as well. Although other colleges "segmented the market," he says, Beaver's enrollment continued to climb.

Electronic course delivery, he predicts, will merely enhance continuing-education programs that are taught in the traditional classroom. "It's not all or nothing," Mr. Polis says. "What we do best is work with students, face to face, hands on. I don't know if we're in a position to compete with a large university in distance education -- nor do we want to."

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. Posted with permission on This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without express permission from The Chronicle.

Back to Background Materials