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UMass System Announces Plans for Online College

By Cait Etherington
March 12, 2019

Several state university systems have recently launched online colleges. These states include Indiana, which recently launched Purdue Global, and California, which is in the midst of launching its own online community college. Now, the University of Massachusetts system has announced plans to launch its own statewide online college. Given the obstacles faced in other states, however, it seems likely that UMass President Marty Meehan will have his work cut out for him as he attempts to persuade current stakeholders that the system’s future may be online.

President’s Plans for Online College

On March 4, President Meehan outlined plans to launch a new online college in the UMass system. The college will aim to meet the needs of adult students. Specifically, it will focus on offering degree-completion programs designed to respond to workforce demand and may also offer customized credential programs for employers. Meehan hopes the online college will help the UMass system remain competitive as enrollments among traditional college-aged students drop.

To date, Meehan has offered few details about the actual rollout of UMass’s proposed online college, but this is likely deliberate. Before any major decisions are made, Meehan plans to engage in an extensive consultation. Over the coming months, he will meet with senior officials and faculty on all five of the university’s campuses to discuss the proposed college. The real test of the college’s viability will likely become evident during this process.

UMass President Should Brace Himself for Backlash

Both in California and Indiana, faculty continue to raise concerns about their statewide online colleges. At Purdue, for example, faculty have raised concerns about a range of issues, including faculty at Purdue Global being forced to sign away their intellectual property rights on curricular materials. While some faculty concerns have been resolved, the new college remains fraught with conflict.

In California, efforts to create an online community college have also raised concerns. Faculty and leaders at California’s existing community colleges worry that the new online college may simply end up duplicating courses and programs already on offer and drain their student body.

It seems likely that at least some of the concerns expressed in Indiana and California may also be raised by UMass faculty. It also seems likely that questions will be posed about the new college’s start-up cost and delivery method.

In an article about UMass’s announced plans to create a new online college, Mark Lieberman of Inside Higher Education, noted, “California allocated $100 million to fund its new online community college, as well as $20 million renewed annually.” Lieberman further reported that in the case of UMass, Meehan plans to draw on university reserves as the new online college takes off but to pay back any borrowed funds with interest at a later date. Despite the fact that Meehan has promised to pay back any funds borrowed to launch the college, it seems likely that faculty and students in the already beleaguered UMass system will question the wisdom of taking money out of the university’s operating budget to start a new online college at this time. If UMass opts to partner with an OPM, other questions will presumably be raised about what it means for a public university to partner with a for-profit online provider. As recently reported on eLearning Inside, some OPMs, such as 2U, take up to 65% of revenues for the services they provide.

To make matters worse, the timing couldn’t be worse for Meehan. Many UMass faculty are already upset about the university’s recent acquisition of Mount Ida College and the university’s failed search for a new chancellor at UMass Boston. Last May, faculty revolted against the university when they were shutout of a search for a new Chancellor.

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