They Thought Globally, but Now Colleges Push Online Programs Locally

Milwaukee— With a 2-year-old daughter, two jobs, and a stethoscope stashed in the console of his Chevy Blazer, Joel M. Kolberg is one busy working adult.

Homework? The emergency medical technician plunks down his laptop on a checkered tablecloth in the frat-house-style lounge of a Milwaukee ambulance station. It’s as good a place as any to squeeze in late-night posts to one of his occupational-therapy class discussions.

“For a while last year, I wouldn’t go home for like three days,” says the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee graduate student. “I’d go to work. Go to school. Come here. Shower. Go back to work.”

For years, some universities have dreamed of border-defying online programs that vacuum up tuition dollars far beyond local students like Mr. Kolberg. But now a growing number of institutions like Milwaukee are ramping up their efforts to attract working adults in their own backyards. The Chronicle takes a look at this trend in a report on its Web site today.

Commuter-serving urban universities can’t match the marketing muscle of faster-growing, for-profit, online colleges. What they can try to do is parlay stronger local brands, cheaper tuition, and blended programs that shift a lot of class time online into an appealing package for area adults. The kind of adults who might value coming to campus periodically but struggle to do it three times a week.

The “go local” trend follows the flameout of one of the latest public efforts to forge an online institution of international scope. The University of Illinois is remaking a more modest version of its Global Campus after the project crashed in a confetti of bad press in May as enrollment flagged and faculty raised concerns about quality. Anxiety arose from its push to set up shop as a separate entity beyond the system’s bricks-and-mortar universities, with its own professors and programs.

By contrast, proponents of going local with online and blended programs sometimes sound like small farmers touting the virtues of fresh arugula. They pitch the “authentic” product: classes taught by the same faculty you would get face to face, in programs that grow “organically” from the same departments. —Marc Parry

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