Better together: Colleges form academic alliances

Groups of institutions provide new learning and research opportunities—and expand funding

At Juniata College in Pennsylvania, students took Arabic for the first time last fall by enrolling in a course at Gettysburg College via video conference.

Amherst College students, meanwhile, can major in architectural studies by taking classes at four neighboring colleges. And at Cabrini College near Philadelphia, students from five institutions researched viruses last summer in a new undergraduate science program.

Colleges and universities across the country are creating shared courses, new academic majors and innovative research programs through consortia that combine the resources of multiple campuses. The growing number of these groups, now estimated at 60 nationwide, has also provided new opportunities for faculty to collaborate on research and teaching strategies.

While many institutions initially teamed up to share functions such as library services, the power of numbers has allowed groups of small colleges to expand course offerings and save money by sharing faculty.

“One of the things we are all concluding is we can’t all do everything on our own campuses,” says Janet Morgan Riggs, president of Gettysburg, part of the two-year-old Pennsylvania Consortium for the Liberal Arts.

Joining a consortium lets small colleges such as Gettysburg provide more of the academic opportunities students may have access to at a large university. And larger schools have found that collaboration can increase the range of classes and majors offered.

“Even at a big research university, students want to take courses on other campuses,” says Neal Abraham, a physics professor and executive director of the Five Colleges, Incorporated in Massachusetts.

UMass Amherst, for example, offers 4,185 courses. Because of the university’s association with Five Colleges, last year its students took an additional 466 courses at the four other schools in the consortium.

Here’s a closer look at how consortia offer students and faculty new learning and research opportunities, as well as how these projects are funded.

New student opportunities

Improvements in video-conferencing technology have paved the way for colleges in consortia to share courses on campuses hundreds of miles from one another. One focus has been offering language courses that typically attract low enrollment.

Gettysburg College, for example, used a video-conferencing platform called Lifesize last fall to beam in a course on Arabic to four students at Juniata College, two hours away. At the same time, Juniata video-conferenced a Chinese class to three students who were three hours away at Washington & Jefferson College.

Five Colleges, one of the largest consortia in the country, created the Center for the Study of World Languages, which offers instruction in 40 less commonly taught languages, such as Twi from Ghana and Yoruba from West Africa, Tagalog from the Philippines and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian. While the colleges are no more than 30 minutes apart, a growing number of students find that videoconference classes fit more conveniently into their schedule.

And, last year, the consortium began assigning teaching assistants to work with students taking Hebrew and Arabic remotely.

Accessing the learning management system across the Five Colleges consortium while teaching these shared classes has not presented an obstacle because all of the schools use Moodle, Abraham says.

Other partnerships are creating new initiatives in STEM fields. Two years ago, the Philadelphia-area Southeastern Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education developed a 10-week undergraduate summer research program that allows students to sequence and annotate the genetic properties of a bacteriophage.

While the program was previously offered during the academic year, administrators say it was more successful during the summer because the students had more time to devote to the course, which met for four hours, four days a week at Cabrini College. Based on a research model developed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the summer course could not have been offered if the consortium had not sponsored it, says David Dunbar, an associate professor of biology at Cabrini.

“Doing it with the consortium, we’re able to divvy up the costs of teaching the course,” says Dunbar, the sole instructor for the course, adding that it would have been “next to impossible” otherwise.

Also in the STEM arena, eight community colleges and one university partnered to create the Colorado Helps Advanced Manufacturing Program, which last fall began offering two new certificates in advanced manufacturing. Based at Metropolitan State University of Denver, the partners developed the new curriculum because technology-based manufacturing is fueling a boom in the aerospace, aviation and biomedical industries in Colorado.

Devi Kalla, an associate professor of mechanical engineering technology at Metropolitan State, says the collaboration—which avoided a situation in which each school developed its own similar certificate—added industry-driven content to the program and redesigned several courses for online delivery.

Benefits for faculty

At smaller colleges, consortia offer faculty conducting similar research more opportunities to collaborate. At the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium, faculty work together on two-year projects focused on upstate New York and the wider world. Students often help with research during the summer.

Consortium faculty researching immigration and human rights issues in border regions traveled to Mexico last summer and will complete the project with a trip to South Africa and Kenya in June.

“One of the realities of small liberal arts colleges is that we have limited numbers of people working in particular areas on any of our campuses,” says Valerie Lehr, vice president and dean of academic affairs at St. Lawrence University, a member school. “So to the extent we can connect people who do similar kinds of work really enhances what all of us do.”

Many consortia also support faculty development programs. The Colleges of the Fenway, a group of six schools in Boston, hosts a teaching and learning conference for consortium faculty every fall. After the last conference, which focused on difficult campus conversations, the faculty created two online discussion groups to explore the issues of race and faith in their classes.

“Faculty have talked to us about the value of talking to their peers outside their institution,” says Claire Ramsbottom, the consortium’s executive director and president of the Association for Collaborative Leadership, a national organization that promotes cooperation in higher education. “You can mitigate some of institutional policies,” she says. “You’re not going to be talking to the person who’s going to sit on your tenure committee, so you can have a different kind of conversation.”

Financial support for academic partnerships

Consortia also provide access to grants that might not be available to individual institutions. A number of partnerships were established with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and The Teagle Foundation, both of which offer grants for collaboration in higher education.

These foundations have also funded shared academic programs. The Five Colleges of Ohio, for example, received a $2 million Mellon Foundation grant last year that allows Ohio State University postdoctoral fellows to teach language courses on each of the consortium’s five campuses, says Susan Palmer, executive director of Five Colleges.

“Forming the consortium helped give us some recognition, and then we were able to accept grants as a consortium, and that’s important,” Palmer says.

The partnership received a $775,000 Mellon Foundation grant to create digital library resources for faculty to use in teaching and research and a $280,000 Teagle Foundation grant to help students find coherent connections and themes among their courses—such as the use of water, which can be examined from different perspectives, she adds.

The Colorado Helps Advanced Manufacturing Program received $25 million from the U.S. Department of Labor to create its new curricula in 2013. The group was one of 57 collaborations nationwide that was awarded funding to develop content for manufacturing courses.

As consortia continue to create new academic initiatives, many administrators believe schools will benefit more from the collective approach than if they try to develop the programs on their own. “It’s not a way of competing with large universities,” says Riggs, president of Gettysburg. “It’s more about enriching what we already do and trying to be as efficient in areas where it makes sense to be efficient.”

Consortia to know

Sherrie Negrea, who writes regularly for UB, is based in Ithaca, New York.

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