Survey: Nearly One in Four HBCUs Offer Full, Blended Online Degree Programs

Historically Black colleges and universities continue their modest pace of increasingly embracing online learning programs as a vehicle for reaching more potential students, especially so-called non-traditional students, those who are usually older and working, according to the 2012 HBCU Online & Blended Degree Programs study from the Howard University Distance Learning Lab.

The study, the only one of its kind focusing on web-based education programs at HBCUs, is based on an analysis of the 105 HBCU Web sites. Among its key findings:

  • In June 2012, there were 24 online or blended degree programs being offered by HBCUs, up from 19 such programs in November 2011.
  • Public HBCUs offered three times more online or blended degree programs than private HBCUs—18 to six.
  • Nearly half (11 of 24) of the HBCUs offered their programs with “strategic partners”—that is, private vendors that provide the bulk of the up-front money required to market, promote and operate the programs. In return, the vendor firms get a share of the student tuition revenue.

Howard, for example, has partnered with Embanet-Compass, a vendor that also partners with Northeastern University and the University of Southern California. And EOServe Corp. has partnerships with Jackson State and Langston universities and Tugaloo College. 

“Blended” courses and programs are courses of study in which 30 to 80 percent of the program content is offered online and the balance requires traditional face-to-face classroom engagement, the Howard study said. Full online courses deliver 80 to 100 percent of their content over the Web.

“HBCUs are making steady progress and that’s a good thing,” said Dr. Roy L. Beasley, director of the Howard University Digital Learning Lab (DLL) and author of the report, the fifth in a series that started in 2005.

Beasley said HBCUs are expanding into digital learning at a pace that tracks the larger higher education community. Some observers may assert the HBCUs are moving too slowly to embrace digital learning, he said.

Rushing to get into the game can prove unproductive, however, he added, in noting that getting a solid footing in distance education takes time and is not an overnight proposition.

Citing high entry costs, Beasley says it has made sense for HBCUs to embrace partnerships with private online vendors.

“Anyone can produce online courses, but producing enough in a narrow range to get a degree—that’s a significant effort not every professor or university will be able to do on their own,” he said. 

HBCUs are entering the distance learning business for a variety of reasons, Beasley and others say. Some HBCUs are “running out of students,” Beasley noted, referring to declining enrollment of traditional students (those coming fresh from high school or recent high school graduates) as traditional audiences have more options or do not go to college.

“There’s the opportunity to recapture individuals who have not maintained a traditional path or trajectory from high school to higher education,” said Dr. James Minor, director of higher education programs at the Southern Education Foundation. “Tradition has its place, but the world is very different than it was when these institutions were founded and even just a decade ago.”

As the traditional student market shifts, HBCUs are also viewing the non-traditional student market (working adults with jobs, family and other obligations that allow them to go to school only at night or on weekends) more seriously. They are taking a cue from the intense and successful marketing in the past decade by private, for-profit companies like the University of Phoenix and Strayer University.

Minor added that it’s strategically advantageous for HBCUs and other minority serving institutions to offer online programs given that non-traditional students constitute a significant proportion of the African-American and other minority adult population seeking postsecondary degrees.