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UHCL meets with online program management company about possible partnership

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The University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL) met with an online program management company called Academic Partnerships (AP). The Dallas-based company is a vendor interested in partnering with UHCL to help develop and market online degree programs.

“AP funds the launch of fully online degree programs at partner institutions, recruits students into these programs and supports the student through graduation,” said Molly Casey, vice-president of brand marketing at Academic Partnerships. “AP does not serve any University of Houston (UH) institutions, but our team has had discussions over the past several years with some of the campuses.”

While UHCL is one of four campuses under the UH System, a deal with AP or a similar company would be done independently from UH-Main, UH-Victoria and UH-Downtown.

“I can only speak to the situation at UH,” said Jeff Morgan, associate provost for education innovation and technology at UH-Main. “If we decide to work with an outside vendor, the purpose will be to market our degree programs to a wider audience. That is, the vendor will help advertise and promote our programs.”

Since launching in 2007 under the name Higher Education Holdings, AP has provided services to more than 50 public universities throughout the United States. Some of these universities include: the University of Texas-Arlington, University of Texas-Tyler, Stephen F. Austin University (SFA) and Lamar University.

At these universities, AP has helped establish online degree programs in areas such as nursing, business and education. While AP’s partnership with a university is rarely publicized, the company, based on previous contracts with universities such as Lamar University, profits around 70 percent of revenue from each course.

SFA previously had a contract with AP that started in May 2011, but was discontinued in May 2016. In the contract, it stated SFA would “collect all revenue and remit to AP 70 percent of revenues collected for each course within the specified degree program.”

At the time, AP assisted in developing and marketing an undergraduate head start teacher completer program and a graduate early childhood degree program for the college of education. The undergraduate portion was discontinued in 2014.

“Theoretically, the services provided by AP, that of recruiting/sourcing students, is important and time-consuming work,” said Judy Abbott, dean of the college of education at SFA. “Perhaps the nature of the degree programs that were selected as the focus were not well suited for the ‘student’ sourcing connections already in place for AP. But the number of students brought to us by AP did not meet the expectations for either SFA or for AP.”

One of the points being made in the proposal to UHCL is AP’s plan to market online degree programs to students not just around Houston, but nationwide. For some, this is one of the major perks about a partnership with AP.

“We can no longer use ‘word-of-mouth’ as our primary marketing strategy,” said Mark Shermis, dean of the college of education at UHCL. “It hasn’t been working well for several years. I also think the arrangement will make the experience at UHCL a bit more ‘customer-friendly’ with less bureaucracy.”

While offering online-only courses is not a new venture for the UH-System, including UHCL, the prospect of partnering with a third party has raised mixed reviews from faculty.

“Such potential partnerships may provide value to UHCL since it may result in increased enrollment to online programs, and may also provide more visibility to all other programs through marketing,” said Ipek Bozkurt, associate professor of the engineering management program. “However, more research needs to be conducted on potential negative side effects as well; it is of utmost importance that quantity does not dominate quality.”

For some faculty, such as Keith Parsons, professor of philosophy, a potential conflict that could arise would be the marketability of a program’s curricula.

“Frankly, we do not give a damn about AP’s profits,” Parsons said. “Our commitment is to offer students the best courses that we can, and this means that courses must have real requirements that demand real effort from students. If we develop courses that are rigorous, and this makes them less ‘marketable,’ will we get pressure from AP or our own administration to dumb down the courses?”

With the idea of UHCL potentially pursuing a venture such as the one proposed by AP, some faculty are concerned about being forced to teach courses online.

“Some faculty simply don’t want to work in the online modality,” Shermis said. “My position is that no one will be compelled to teach online who doesn’t want to. Faculty have heard stories of places where programs were forced to move to online mode—that will not be the case here, if we accept the proposal.”

Another concern regarding a partnership with AP is the impact it would have on class sizes. While Morgan states that AP would have no say in terms of instruction or content created for the online degree programs, Timothy Michael, associate professor of finance, states that vendors such as AP promote class sizes to up to 100 students in graduate programs that are taught using a “mentor model.”

“They achieve these class sizes by using what’s called a ‘mentor’ model, where one credentialed professor is the ‘instructor of record’ and they are assisted by graduate assistants or even adjuncts for engaging the class,” Michael said. “Again, I’ve never talked to anyone who said they wanted more people between them and a professor in a course. In communicating with colleagues from around the country over the past few years, I’ve discovered that these types of programs bring in lots of students who don’t end up finishing their programs, or they pressure faculty in programs to lower entrance standards to try to keep that from happening.”

Antonio Corrales, coordinator of the educational leadership doctoral program and assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis, sees a partnership with AP as an initiative worth joining.

“AP offers the opportunity to help transforming some of our programs to meet the needs of our millennial students not only within the Houston area but across the nation,” Corrales said. “It is time for the UHCL to become a force to be dealt with nationwide, and I am convinced that we need to play a role in that process.”

Meanwhile, faculty such as Chunlong Zhang, program chair of environmental science and professor of environmental science and environmental chemistry, are concerned about entering into a long-term contract with AP.

“We should have some provision in the contract [that states] if we do not reach certain number [of students], we can break the agreement,” Zhang said. “Plus, there is no successful example for science online [degree programs] from AP. The online programs are mostly business, nursing, etc.”

Parsons, along with other faculty members within the College of HSH, drafted a petition against UHCL partnering with AP. The petition states:

“We the undersigned faculty of the College of Human Sciences and Humanities strongly oppose any business relationship between the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Academic Partnerships. Judging by the experiences of other colleges and universities with Academic Partnerships, we are deeply concerned that any such relationship will result in a compromise of essential academic standards and the generation of curricula that will poorly prepare our students. The disservice thus done to students will tarnish UHCL’s reputation and belie its stated commitments to academic excellence and to the people of our region. Dubious schemes of quick-fix revenue generation can never justify the abandonment or attenuation of UHCL’s core academic values or excuse giving our students anything less than our best.”

The petition received 55 signatures from HSH faculty and was delivered to UHCL President Blake Oct. 18.

UHCL currently offers four online undergraduate programs, nine online graduate programs and seven graduate online certificates through UHCL Online. As of now, UHCL and other UH System universities have no formal deal in place with AP.


CLARIFICATION – 11/2/17:

A representative from Academic Partnerships reached out to The Signal after publication to clarify statements made in this news article above. Below are the clarifications:

  • “Lamar (University) allocates 30 percent to 50 percent of online revenue to its marketing budget. Academic Partnerships (AP) receives seven percent to 12 percent.”
  • “SFA had two small online programs, managed by AP. SFA allocated 50 percent of online revenue to AP for marketing, recruitment and student support.”

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