Course and program sharing is a powerful solution to address the challenges students face with on-time completion and graduation.

Institutions must collaborate—not compete—to boost reach, retention and completion

How to implement collaborative strategies to tackle the biggest obstacles to student success

Key points:

Looking ahead to the new school year, the biggest challenge for leaders across higher education is clear: how to make institutional changes that ensure more students can graduate on time. Many students find themselves falling behind because their institutions can’t offer access to the courses or sections they need – when they need them – in order to stay on track.

But here’s the thing: we know that enrollment, retention and completion rates can be improved when institutions collaborate, instead of compete, for students. When leaders work collaboratively with peer institutions by sharing access to their courses, they ensure students can earn the on-time degrees they need, with the equity, access, and opportunities they deserve.

The completion crisis in higher education today is acute: less than half of full-time students graduate within four years, and only 67.7% graduate by year six. Among part-time students, only about 20% graduate within four years, and only 33% graduate by year six. In addition, 25.1% of full-time students, and 54.2% of part-time students, leave college without earning a credential six years later.

Institutions are also struggling to enroll and retain students. To attract and keep students on the path to completion, forward-looking leaders are increasingly turning to innovative strategies that provide collaborative solutions. For these leaders, course sharing is gaining momentum as a powerful solution for both student and institutional success.

This strategy enables two or more institutions to collaborate to make their courses available to each other’s students to count for credit at their home institution. Along with sharing courses and sections with peer institutions, institutions can also share academic and workforce development programs and certificates.

A course sharing strategy enables institutions to overcome challenges in course availability by collaborating to provide students with class options outside of their home institution. This helps boost enrollment, retention and completion by giving students more options for when and where they fulfill their degree requirements. Furthermore, when course sharing agreements exist between institutions, students can generally apply their financial aid to classes taken at the collaborating institution. And with these agreements in place, students can feel confident that the courses they take will count towards their degree.

Collaborative Action Builds Greater Success for Institutions

The result is a seamless experience for students that helps them graduate on time. It also supports improved metrics for reach, enrollment, retention, and completion for institutions. Hundreds of systems, consortia, and individual institutions — the Montana University System and the Idaho State Board of Education are just two examples — now implement course sharing. And this is empowering higher education leaders to expand academic opportunity, create new pathways to degrees, and drive efficiencies for their institutions.

With course sharing strategies, institutions can expect to improve enrollment and fill empty seats. According to a new analysis, pandemic-driven declines may be leveling off but total enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels, down about 1.09 million students compared to spring 2020. Clearly, we need to find alternatives to traditional strategies for growing enrollment, but by collaborating, rather than competing, with peer institutions, colleges and universities can help their enrolled students stay in their seats and on track for a timely graduation.

Additionally, sharing courses can be used between institutions and secondary schools to facilitate dual enrollment. High schools can collaborate with colleges and universities to make it easier for their students to find and register for dual-credit courses that are aligned with degree pathways. Developing a pipeline of students who already have pathways and credits toward their degrees helps to support institutional efficiency and builds enrollment and retention.

Perhaps most importantly, course sharing can serve as a catalyst for increased equity, access, and opportunity at many institutions. Colleges and institutions are able to expand and diversify their offerings to students, providing them with greater academic opportunities. For institutional leaders, this increase in the number and scope of classes can take place without having to add faculty and sections to their schedules. And by collaborating with like-minded institutions, leaders multiply the connections that can be accessed by all members of their academic communities.

How Leaders Are Implementing Course Sharing

The growth of course sharing across colleges and universities is driven by their leaders’ unwavering focus on student success. And as more institutions implement the solution, leaders are turning to proven best practices to help chart their paths forward. These include the following:

  1. Identify institutional objectives. Leaders are creating the framework for any course sharing initiative by determining what their institution needs to accomplish. Possible goals could be to increase enrollment and retention, improve graduation and completion rates, and enhance revenues and efficiencies.
  2. Make sure the right people are brought to the table. Conversations should include representatives from academic affairs; the registrar or enrollment management office; counseling and advising; the transfer office; financial aid, and the office of student success. Getting their input will help create a 360-degree view of what is needed for success. 
  3. Focus on the student experience. Institutional leaders will want to consider how course sharing can address critical issues around improving equity and access for students. They can use it to extend their reach to underserved populations; provide better pathways for on-time completion, and increase availability and diversity in course offerings.
  4. Build for the future. Developing iterative strategies and templates for course sharing makes it easier to collaborate with additional institutions in the future. Leaders may also want to consider forming their own consortia or partnerships in response to unique opportunities and challenges.

Implementing course sharing allows colleges and universities to offer their students the classes they need, when they need them. This is important for improving student success metrics across the board, from enrollment to retention to completion. In doing so, leaders are better positioned to boost institutional success and improve the student experience. And this will be critical in the coming year — and well into the future.

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