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Main Hall, University of Montana file

Main Hall on the University of Montana campus.

The University of Montana has selected Wiley Education Services as the company to help it grow "distance learners" and revenue, a major initiative from Provost Jon Harbor.

Wiley Education Services is a subsidiary of John Wiley & Sons. In a purchase announcement last fall, Wiley Education Services described itself as "a leading provider of tech-enabled education services for colleges and universities" with the addition at the time of Learning House.

Executive director of UMOnline Maricel Lawrence said both finalists could have done the job, but Wiley stood out after a proposal review, campus interview, and consideration of campus feedback. 

"Wiley did a better job at communicating with our faculty and with the staff and saying, 'We're here to support you, and we're not mandating how to do things,'" Lawrence said. "At the end of the day, the programs are UM programs, so that was a big difference."

UM and Wiley will negotiate an umbrella agreement she anticipates will be complete in late summer or early fall, Lawrence said. Subsequently, she said individual programs that want to expand and show potential can negotiate specific contracts for the degree or certificate expansions they want to pursue.

Some critics have wondered why UM needs an outside company to grow its online offerings when many faculty and staff on campus already run programs online. However, Harbor earlier noted the vendor allows the flagship to ramp up more quickly than it otherwise would because it has the cash to make the necessary investments.

In a hypothetical scenario in its proposal to UM, Wiley noted the "assumed revenue share" would be split with 45% to the campus and 55% to Wiley. However, Lawrence said those percentages will be negotiated program by program and depend on the different services each wants from Wiley.

The proposal from Wiley noted cost components include marketing, recruitment and course development. As proposed, UM would be responsible for "all expenses associated with instruction and student support services," typically 25% to 30% of "net partnership revenue (post-revenue split)."

"Supported by top professionals with an established set of best practices, Wiley’s unparalleled flexible approach to partnership, underpinned by significant technology investments, sets us apart from any other firm in your consideration set," Wiley said in its pitch to UM.

Across the country, campuses are looking to grow online education as a way to reach a wider audience and boost the bottom line as recruitment for traditional students becomes more competitive. Earlier this year, Provost Harbor said he believed UM held "enormous potential" to grow online, and modern campuses needed to adapt.

However, faculty members have raised concerns, including ensuring UM maintains control of its own curriculum and faculty hires. As designed, however, both Wiley and a UM program need to agree that the development of an online offering would be beneficial to both parties in order to proceed.

Mark Pershouse, head of the Faculty Senate and representative in the upcoming contract negotiation, said he wants to be sure UM maintains its brand with its online instruction; does not overburden current student services support staff; and does not engage in improper hiring of teaching faculty.

"We want to protect our faculty," Pershouse said. "They should be involved in this, and they shouldn't be excluded, and that is certainly a concern."

He said a group of staff, students and faculty advocated to the provost to be represented during the negotiation, and Harbor understood. Pershouse also said transparency is key as UM moves forward with the "online program management" agreement with Wiley.

"There have been some bad actors, and there have been some great actors, and Wiley came out ahead of most," Pershouse said.

Abbigail Belcher, president of ASUM, the Associated Students of the University of Montana, said she is optimistic about the initiative, and she's excited to work with Wiley, the administration, and staff to implement new programs. She also said she looks forward to seeing the anticipated revenue from the new model.

"This opportunity is going to be really good for campus. I'm excited about the opportunity to reinvest those funds," Belcher said.

Lawrence said all of the deans have expressed interest in learning more about possibilities for their units, but it's too soon to say which programs UM will seek to expand online first. She said the online market is difficult, and UM must differentiate itself and also consider opportunities that might not be obvious at first.

"What if we were to find something that is really, really outside of the box? Something that is really a representation of UM that we didn't think about (before)?" Lawrence said.

She said tuition costs will vary depending on the program. In its proposal, Wiley noted it had identified a "large number of programs" as "high potential."

The proposal stated a hypothetical $750 cost per credit hour as an example for a possible Master of Social Work.

UM notes on its website the cost of tuition and fees for an undergraduate resident at $7,242 on campus, and a typical full time student would take 24 to 30 credits over two semesters. But fees are different in person than online, and a direct comparison of cost per credit hour was not immediately available last week.

By way of example, Arizona State University has robust online offerings, and tuition and fees for undergraduate degrees cost from $520 to $728 per credit hour, and graduate programs cost $522 to $1,397.

Generally, Lawrence said the plan is to find a cost that isn't the most expensive, but isn't so cheap UM can't run the program. "What is the sweet spot for us to be able to run the program right away?"

In its news release about its acquisition last fall, Wiley noted it counted $200 million in combined revenue, more than 60 campus partners, and more than 800 online degrees. Lawrence said results take years, and it will take UM time to build its programs.

"But we're excited to be able to expand the brand and think about who else we can actually educate through our faculty here at UM. So this is a great opportunity," Lawrence said.

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