State U Online: An Overview

Last year, New America published State U Online, a report I wrote after over a year of research. The project, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation, was based upon the idea from our grant that, “Scaling [online education] is demonstrably possible in the for-profit sector. What are the barriers to similar growth in the public sector? Why have some state efforts succeeded and others failed, and what are the implications for states looking to move online?”

Admittedly I did not know a lot about online education when I started my research in September 2011, and I naively believed that this report would be straightforward. But the arrival of MOOC mania created a lot noise that threatened online education’s nuance, and the report’s relevance.

Like any research project, I started by gathering as much information as I could—interviewing administrators, faculty, and students involved with online education and reading a lot of source material about best practices in eLearning. What came across loud and clear was that despite the MOOC hyperventilation gripping higher education and policymakers, MOOCs played only a very small role in online education. Colleges and universities have been online for years, and the quality of their offerings continues to improve as technology becomes more robust and as best practices are disseminated among dedicated faculty and administrators.

So I delved deeper. I researched the history of distance education and traced the development of online education. I came across a report that SHEEO and WCET published in 2003 about “Virtual College and University Consortia,” and found that these consortia seemed like a great idea to overcome the many barriers in place that prevent scaling of online education. So why did many of the consortia listed in the report no longer exist ten years later? As I found out through interviewing many former administrators who had worked in consortia, the overwhelming reason given for why the consortium didn’t succeed was that oftentimes the consortium enabled institutions to get up and running online but once institutions established their own programs, they (or their boards) became reluctant to share money and/or enrollment.

But it seemed to me that consortia made sense back then, and they make even more sense now. While I was conducting my preliminary research, the biggest barriers to scaling online and eLearning efforts that became apparent were: funding and costs; faculty buy-in and quality concerns; advertising; and serving a diverse student population with differing needs. Collaborative practices seen in consortia could help battle and overcome all of these barriers through shared costs, reduction in duplication, institutionally-organized professional development and course development support, simplified advertising to students, and simplified credit transfer for “swirling” students trying to finish degree requirements.

After dozens of interviews, I distilled my paper down to what I call the “Steps of Online System Collaboration”:

Graphic with five "steps" of collaboration:  1) Clearhinghouse, 2) Shared Contracts, 3) Shared Student Services, 4) Shared & Articulated Credentials, and 5) Shared Credentials Beyond State Borders

Each step builds on those before it, leading toward increasingly integrated systems in which students can move freely among institutions within a state and eventually beyond state lines. I realize this is a very simplistic way to visualize the relationships, but I thought of this illustration as a way to spur public institutions to consider making linkages to other institutions depending upon the various governance structures within their state. I know that public higher education governance varies widely from state to state, so my hope was that state and institutional policymakers could see the various points of collaboration and incorporate them into their own structures as they see fit. (For a more in-depth explanation of each of the steps, see page 9 of State U Online.)

What I’ve Learned

Since the publication of State U Online, I have received good feedback on my “Steps to Online System Collaboration” model. Namely, many of these categories may not be as distinct or as linear as I have made them out to be. And for some states, there are many barriers already in place that prevent institutions from even being able to come together and collaborate in the first place. I’m hoping that Frontiers readers can use the comments section as a sounding board to provide their thoughts on State U.

What I’m Doing Next: Community College Online

I have taken what I’ve learned from State U and I am now working on Community College Online, a new and related project funded by the Kresge Foundation (slated for release late this fall). Community colleges were some of the first online innovators given that their students needed online flexibility well before it was on the radar of more selective institutions. For this project I plan on applying the frame of a consortium model to highlight online community college partnerships and online articulation agreements with four-year institutions.

I also plan on focusing not only on online courses and credentials, but also on technological tools and platforms used to help students persist. The idea here is that almost all students are online students in some way, either through taking their credential online, mixing online and face-to-face courses, or even accessing online services such as tutoring and advising. I would be very interested to hear from Frontiers readers what community colleges I should feature and what are the most important institutional, state, and federal policy concerns I should highlight in this report.

I can only become an expert in this issue if I surround myself with experts in the field. As such, you can get in touch with me at to share your thoughts and ideas.Photo of Rachel Fishman

Rachel Fishman
Policy Analyst
Education Policy Program
New America Foundation



3 replies on “Seeking Your Input on Online Consortia and Online Community Colleges”

Hi Rachel. Please read the message I sent you earlier by email. Thanks for your work on documenting success in higher education online, and now looking at community colleges!
Alberto Ramirez
Frederick Community College
Frederick, MD

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