The University of Montana wants to stake a claim in the online market for "distance learners."
Last semester, UM issued a request for proposals from companies interested in "the planning, preparation, delivery, marketing, and support of online educational activities for residential and distance learners."
In April, Wiley Education Services and Pearson Online Learning Services will visit the campus for interviews, and a rough timeline aims to have a contract in place this semester.
UM has lost students and faced deep budget reductions since 2011, and across the country, campuses like the Missoula flagship are competing for a pool of high school graduates projected to be flat or shrinking in many states.
Many higher education institutions are turning to online offerings as a way to reach another market and grow revenue.
Provost Jon Harbor landed at UM last summer from Purdue University with experience in digital education, and he said the region holds "enormous potential" for UM to grow online. The competition, he said, will only stiffen as time passes.
"It's part of the modern educational landscape, and you either move in that direction to add that to your portfolio, or you're going to struggle as a modern university," Harbor said in a recent interview.
Matt Semanoff, chair of the Faculty Senate, said many faculty members see the effort as a chance to grow, and the finalists for the contract are leaders in the field. At the same time, he said faculty have raised concerns, including retaining control over curriculum and resource deployment.
"I know some people probably feel a little bit anxious about what that means if we are going down the road to outsourcing what we do here," Semanoff said.
As he sees it, though, UM will be able to reach people who otherwise couldn't take advantage of college and continue to make good on its mission.
"I look at it first as an issue of access to education," Semanoff said.
A Forbes report in June said Arizona State University counted the third largest online enrollment among public universities. An ASU financial plan anticipated more "incremental net revenue" and significant growth in gross revenue.
"Since its inception in FY 2012, ASU Online gross revenue has grown to $180 million in FY 2016 and is expected to reach $230 million in FY2017," the plan said. "The forecast includes additional growth in annual gross revenue of about $250 million by FY 2025."
Although UM has some programs with faculty who have expertise in online education, UM officials note the campus doesn't have the cash to make the up front investment in online education to grow that market quickly on its own.
So one likely scenario is a vendor would make the initial investment and then split revenue from online tuition with the flagship.
One possible split is 45 percent to UM and 55 percent to the company, according to the proposals UM received. A story in The Atlantic noted some companies take as much as 80 percent.
At a recent meeting of the executive committee of the Faculty Senate at UM, members contemplated a typical investment of $1 million over the course of the first few years, although contract terms vary.
Harbor declined to offer a specific estimate of how much money such a program could earn UM, but he was bullish.
"When these programs are well designed and well run, they are significant revenue generators," Harbor said. "We can't say today how many millions of dollars there will be."
At UM, some programs already are fully online, such as the bachelor's degree in Media Arts, and many instructors incorporate digital components to varying degrees.
Harbor said the vendor will support faculty who weren't trained to teach online but are interested in learning the best ways to do so. He describes the range of offerings for students as "the continuum of digital education."
At a basic level, students on campus access some course materials online, for instance, and at a more advanced level, they attend "flipped" classrooms where they consume lectures or other material online prior to class and then engage in class in learning activities or data analysis.
UM notes 28 percent of students are taking at least one online course this semester, and Harbor believes having Online Program Management will help UM attract more students and give current students more flexibility.
One major target population for UM is people who can't attend a bricks-and-mortar classroom because of their jobs or their locations. Some might have college credits but may not have finished their degrees.
Harbor said most online learners are older, and national research confirms there's little overlap between the traditional 18- to 22-year-old who attends campus in person and the online learner. He said robust online education also helps students who are studying abroad or working an internship but need to finish credits.
"It's about giving students flexibility, giving them more opportunity for success," Harbor said.
Some issues will need to be ironed out as UM marches toward a contract, and at least one faculty member with expertise in online education offered advice from his experience.
Mark Shogren, director of Media Arts, said teaching online is different than teaching face to face, and he encouraged those newly embarking into the format to ensure they build community online. But he was enthusiastic about the push to expand.
"I think it's a really great way to move in the region in a way that allows us to expand what the University of Montana can offer across the region, not just in the state," Shogren said.
Semanoff identified some of the concerns that will need to be addressed as UM moves forward. Some people wonder whether UM could expand on its own, without having to share tuition revenue later on, and he said faculty also want a voice in curriculum development and assurance of quality.
"We are at this point of having these discussions, trying to figure out how to maintain quality and high academic standards even as we move into different modes of delivery," Semanoff said.
Mark Pershouse, a faculty senator who sits on the Online Program Management Committee, said it is important that the selected vendor agree to honor UM's collective bargaining agreement instead of cherry picking its own professors.
"That was a fight. I bet we lost some vendors in that process," Pershouse said.
He said the committee is seeing concerns in the industry, such as union negotiations, and it is being vigilant to protect UM: "We are going in with open eyes."
He said the chosen vendor will "follow their nose and their market analysis" to identify programs at UM that have the potential to grow and reach out to them. At the same time, he said faculty who want help may reach out to the vendor. He said no one at UM is going to be forced into putting a major online.
"Both can say no. That's the neat part," Pershouse said of UM and the vendor.
So far, he and others close to the discussion appear to be seeing more upsides than downsides as UM takes a big step toward growing online education and ensuing revenue. Pershouse said the effort will bring UM a solid set of tools and expand its reach internationally.
"I think we think regionally, but maybe that's not what we need to do. We need to think bigger. And Jon (Provost Harbor) is good at that," Pershouse said.
Harbor, leading the charge, said with an initial investment from a vendor, UM and its affiliates have an opportunity to be leaders across the region. But he also said the effort offers the chance for the entire Montana University System to collaborate.
He confirmed the effort is taking some resources as UM puts energy into reversing its overall enrollment drop. But he said the company will provide the scale and expertise UM does not have to help grow the online set of students.
"We don't have the bandwidth to do all of these things on our own at the same time, and we don't have the resources. The OPM invests in the university. They do the investment costs that we can't afford to do right now," Harbor said.