I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

A university’s new affiliation represents a novel model for online and adult learners.

Last month an adult-serving institution of 22,000 students officially switched its affiliation from the California university where it began 60 years ago to the public-university system in Massachusetts. That move, which turned Brandman University (formerly affiliated with Chapman University, in Orange County), into the University of Massachusetts Global, didn’t trigger much of a public fuss — especially compared with other deals in this vein. (See Purdue and Kaplan or Arizona and Ashford).

Still, several aspects of this move are worth a closer look for what they might signal about both the evolving opportunities for so-called nontraditional students and the risks and opportunities of operating in the shadow of Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University, the two nonprofit online behemoths that now dominate the sector. As the ed-tech consultant and analyst Phil Hill puts it, those institutions are “who people are reacting to” these days. (A recent conversation with Hill informed some of what I share below).

First, a little background. The UMass Global deal grew out of the system’s desire to expand offerings for working adults in the state and elsewhere. That’s become especially important as New England continues to see a decline in its younger population, and policy makers push for more opportunities for older learners. Don Kilburn, chief executive of UMass Online, said the system considered more than a hundred different options and models before turning to Brandman to develop this new “affiliation.” (UMass Online serves the four existing UMass comprehensive campuses, in Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell. Now, with UMass Global an independently accredited, independently governed “affiliate” of the UMass system, UMass Online could provide services to it, too.)

Brandman, meanwhile — which had spun off from Chapman and gained separate accreditation but still had some ties to the university — was looking for an academic partner committed to serving nontraditional students. As part of the deal, the new UMass Global will pay Chapman about $96 million over the next 10 years, plus $37 million for the former Brandman headquarters in Irvine. The money is supposed to come from UMass Global’s revenue, although the UMass system has guaranteed it will cover the $96 million if the new affiliate can’t. According to Kilburn, projections show UMass Global easily covering those payments, the bulk of which won’t start coming due for five years. (Brandman’s tax filings show it generated more than a $7-million surplus for the fiscal year ending in May 2020.)

OK, so what’s interesting here?

For one, UMass realized that to meaningfully expand its offerings for working adults, just choosing an online-program manager (OPM) didn’t make sense. The system didn’t want to share revenue with an outside company, Kilburn told me, nor cede control to one. (Worth noting: Kilburn knows the OPM world better than most; for years he ran one of the biggest such operations, at Pearson.) More important, UMass realized that what it needed wasn’t just to put more programs online but — in the words of Katherine Newman, the system’s chancellor of academic programs and senior vice-president for economic development — “a fundamentally different model.” Brandman, which offers courses in online and hybrid formats, competency-based degree programs, and a more flexible academic calendar (with six opportunities a year to start courses instead of just two or three semesters), fit that bill.

Still, the deal also raises some questions, chiefly around how UMass Global plans to establish itself in a crowded online marketplace, where institutions like SNHU and WGU are already so established. While it’s true, as Hill noted, that UMass probably won’t need to spend as much money on marketing as Purdue Global has, since “they don’t have to do a turnaround” with Brandman (as Purdue did with the ailing for-profit Kaplan University), there will be some sizable promotional costs to come.

UMass is painfully aware of how many state residents now attend Southern New Hampshire, and it’s eager to win them back. But trying to out-SNHU SNHU strikes me as a losing bet, given its resources and marketing acumen, even if by some metrics, like default rates on student loans, Brandman outshines SNHU (their latest rates are 4.1 percent versus 8.7 percent).

A better strategy, Hill suggests, would be for UMass Global to develop some state-specific appeals, like discounted tuition for state residents, as Purdue Global did in Indiana (apparently already “under discussion,” Kilburn tells me). And from where I sit, it seems vital that UMass Global also quickly develop connections with employers and industries in the state and region — and identify degree and non-degree programs it could offer for the benefit of residents and the economy. To be sure, UMass Global is already weighing these approaches. It will very likely play a role in the alliance UMass Online forged last year with the state’s largest private employer, the health-care system Mass General Brigham, to provide degree and certificate programs. And UMass Global is expected to keep several employer partnerships Brandman had established, both on its own and through Guild Education. More is better here.

Kilburn contends that UMass Global will have national appeal, citing polling that shows people think of Massachusetts as a “hub of excellence” for higher education. I wonder, though, if that reputational gloss really carries over or will win over many students. With California already one of the biggest feeder states to UMass campuses, Kilburn expects the UMass Global brand to play particularly well on the West Coast. We’ll see.

One final thought: Questions of governance — and internal competition — still loom over the new venture. While the accreditor’s conditions for this move weren’t nearly as prescriptive as they were for Arizona’s acquisition of Ashford, UMass faculty members were initially put off by what they saw as a lack of information shared with them about the deal — and they remain concerned about how UMass Global’s programs might impair online enrollments at other UMass campuses. The Intercampus Faculty Council has also highlighted the potential for confusion over who runs UMass Global; the council’s chair, Robert Lublin, even suggested to trustees that “we may want to more fully bring it into the fold” in the future.

Whether there’s support to officially make UMass Global part of the state’s public-university system isn’t clear. But Newman, the academic-programs chancellor, has created an online-leadership group with representatives from the system’s campuses. It now meets regularly to discuss ways of collaborating with UMass Global on matters like articulation agreements, complementary academic programs, and marketing plans, and on advancing online education across the entire system.

That’s a smart move, even if it came later than it probably should have. Those connections could help UMass Global in ways that its looser ties to Chapman did not.

And there’s a lesson there for other institutions. Professors aren’t the enemy, as Lublin told trustees in March. Faculty members are invested in “the future of the university we love,” he said, and “eager to have our knowledge, expertise, and experience contribute to our university’s success.”

Correction (Oct. 7, 2021, 3:31 p.m.): This newsletter incorrectly described the role of an online leadership group. The sentence has been corrected.

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