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Distance learning: refining the financial model: community colleges weigh demands of students, supply of finite funds.

At a time when community colleges are being asked to do more than ever, distance education is emerging as a practical way to meet surging demand. A steady flow of students who otherwise would have lacked ready access to post-secondary education is entering community colleges through the virtual doors of high-tech classrooms. Given the growing demand for remedial training, specialized job skills and affordable alternatives to four-year tuition costs, those doors could stand to be opened even wider.

Community colleges are endeavoring to meet the demand. Seventy-two percent of administrators at 2-year institutions say that distance-learning is part of their long-term strategy, according to "Growing By Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005," a study by the Sloan Consortium.

If only technology budgets were unlimited. The reality is that many community colleges face tough decisions about investing in distance learning. Ramping up such programs is more complicated than buying the latest version of Blackboard and finding a teacher willing to check in online. The necessary infrastructure, and attendant costs, can be prohibitive for smaller schools with limited financial resources. Even for institutions that are large enough to break even on a distance-learning program, the huge initial investment can be daunting.

Find a niche

To offset the start-up and operating costs of distance-learning programs, some colleges have found creative ways to finance the technological infrastructure of smart classrooms.

At times, schools have gained access without excessive expense by sharing space. The Lincoln County (Mont.) campus of Flathead Valley Community College is sharing costs with Libby High School, which lacked the space for a smart classroom. By locating the smart room on the college campus, the high school gets the space it needs, and the community college gets to use the technology.

FVCC Director Pat Pezzelle said the arrangement works well. In addition to the practical benefits, the room also serves as a public relations vehicle for the college.

"I want all those high schools students taking classes at my college," Pezzelle said.

Elsewhere, State Fair Community College leases out smart rooms to nearby Central Methodist University to generate revenue at times when the rooms wouldn't otherwise be in use.

There's no question that the school benefits from the investment, assert college officials.

"Students pointed out that it was nice to see their money going toward something," said Eric Fudge, the manager of instructional technology at the 3,000-student State Fair Community College, in Sedalia, Mo. The intangible costs of education are often lost on students, but smart classrooms are a concrete example of their monetary contributions, said Fudge, who also works for SunGard Higher Education Solutions. And because the community college serves 14 counties, the state picked up a hefty chunk of the cost to create the smart rooms.

As with most programs at the community college level, funding is usually cobbled together from a variety of sources, including corporate contributions (especially for programs from which companies draw graduates), federal and state funding, and either special student fees added to distance courses, or overall tuition hikes.

Fears that adjunct faculty hired on a per-course basis would push out permanent faculty may have been misplaced. The Sloan study found "that core faculty are used to teach online courses about as frequently as they are used to teach face-to-face courses.... The oft-cited prediction that online courses will rely much more heavily on adjunct faculty has not materialized."

If anything, faculty members who tended to be cool to new technology just a few years ago appear more likely to embrace distance learning. Some faculty are going so far as to teach exclusively online. At the Dallas County Community College District, a pioneer in tele-courses (the district has offered distance-learning options for more than 30 years), advances in technology have, of late, made teaching remotely an even more attractive option to faculty.

Administrator Pamela Quinn said that 10 to 15 of her instructors teach only offsite.

Fudge said that following installation of smart classrooms at State Fair, "we had at least 30 percent of faculty inquiring about using the classrooms."

In the city

The demands of students will likely put new pressures on community colleges to expand distance-learning options.

Remote access is proving to be a way to attract local students who want the convenience and flexibility of an online class, as well as students farther afield who are attracted to particular courses offered online.

"Many [current] students are migrating to distance learning," said Quinn, assistant chancellor and president of the district's LeCroy Center for Distance Learning, who estimates that 10 percent of the 30,000 students at DCCCD are distance learners.

"A lot of students are taking advantage of it to make school more convenient. But we're also able to pick up students who may never have gone to our school before," she added. "Students are flocking to these courses."

But even as distance programs expand, it's not easy making ends meet.

"If a school makes money by enrolling students," Quinn said, then DCCCD is doing fine. Realistically, though, every penny made is going right back into the programs, and the best they can hope for is to break even, she said.

Squeezing budgets

To further offset costs, Dallas is developing online coursework and leasing it to other schools.

"We are making money off product development," Quinn said. "In Dallas we produce courses that other institutions use. These are products that we've put a lot of time and money and effort into.... Our success has begotten more success."

Another benefit for schools leasing the courses is that there's no question of ownership, as there is with some online courses developed by faculty at community colleges, where intellectual properly becomes an issue when a faculty member leaves or stops teaching a particular course.

Scalability is another aspect of financial success, Quinn said. If a school can make the same course material available to more students, the initial investment reaps ongoing rewards. The not-for-profit model is financially viable because of the enormous economies of scale, but community colleges have a mission that makes that model difficult to fulfill.

For its part, Dallas has broad resources and depth of experience to draw on that puts them ahead of the curve from other, smaller schools.

In the country

In Libby, Mont., Flathead Valley Community College has five smart classrooms scattered across the state, sending interactive telecourses to everyone from high school juniors and seniors who are part of the dual-credit program, to lone students far from any other school.

Their ITV program was financed through a grant of $350,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that covered the installation of infrastructure. but none of the ongoing costs. such as the high-speed T1 lines necessary to use the technology.

"If you have to do this without a grant, it is absolutely not cost effective," said Patrick Pezzelle, director of the Lincoln County campus.

The school, in partnership with other campuses and local public high schools, installed 3 fixed labs (or smart classrooms) and 6 portable units stretched across the state.

The district has 14 classes on interactive television, and while Pezzelle said they aren't filled to capacity just yet, they're close. Meanwhile, the district is researching ways to expand their distance offerings.

Even with the infrastructure intact, the schools still trove to come up with the costs for the phone lines, ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands per year, depending on usage, no minor thing for a school on a smaller budget. At Flathead Valley, students who take the ITV classes pay an additional $30 credit hour fee for each class they access via ITV. (Students who take the classes from the originating site do not pay the fee.)

But even where access is simplified, there are still cost issues.

"What I have to weigh all the time is things like--we're sending one class to Darby to one student, is it worth it? Well, in her life it is," said Pezzelle, referring to a student in a remote location who is taking a class she wouldn't be able to access any other way. "I struggle with the bottom live versus student needs every day," he added.

"The more partners you have, the more affordable it is," Pezzelle said. "Do some market research and make sure people want this--make sure you have partners out there that are keenly interested in obtaining classes that are otherwise unobtainable."

For many of Montana's 900,000 residents spread over the remote state, these ITV classes are the only access to post-secondary education available.

"For Montana, because of its rural nature--and I can't emphasize enough how rural we are--distance learning is critical. The days of colleges having the mindset that 'Here we are in this place, come to us' is really not a real viable option for a lot of folks in rural Montana who want postsecondary education," Pezzelle said.

"What distance learning does is to make post-secondary education reachable for rural America," he said.

Nitty gritty

Despite the high cost of distance-learning programs, they don't have to be budget busters.

Most schools contract with a provider to install equipment. train staff, and provide maintenance. While the expediency of such an arrangement is appealing, there is often a premium to be paid for one-stop shopping. Colleges on a budget would do well to shop around a bit before entering into long-term contracts.

The advice of Fudge, at State Fair Community College, is "Keep it simple."

The school recently added 28 smart classrooms that benefit both off- and on-campus students through video links. The rooms all work with an interface similar to a VCR remote control, and Fudge says that by streamlining the classrooms to all work the same way, he's saved himself and the faculty endless headaches.

One of the biggest problems they had initially was getting the cables installed--finding ways to efficiently route them through existing walls slowed them down for the first room, but the learning curve quickly leveled for the next 27 rooms. Fudge said that now the most difficult aspect of installing a smart classroom is getting the room empty of students for 48 hours while they put in the equipment.
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Author:Bagnato, Kristin
Publication:Community College Week
Article Type:Cover story
Date:May 8, 2006
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