Could the future of higher ed be found at Liberty University?

Massive online program is second in size only to University of Phoenix

One unusual, religiously affiliated university may hold significant lessons for the future of higher education, reports Jack Stripling for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Founded in 1971 by Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., who also broadcast church services to millions of television viewers, Liberty University only has about 14,000 students on campus. But it enrolls another 65,000 students in its online program, led by about 2,300 teachers.

That is second in size only to for-profit University of Phoenix.

Nearly 75% of academic leaders say online education is an integral part of their schools' long-term plans, according to a national survey, but the traditional classroom model remains more prolific. Often, professors are wary of giving up face-to-face interaction.

In contrast, Liberty ran its first online-only course in 2004, but began providing distance learning opportunities through mailed lecture videotapes and packets of tests back in 1985.

Aimed at adult learners, the program set the stage for Liberty to transition into online learning. "By 2005, when everybody started getting high-speed Internet in their homes, we were just poised in the perfect position to serve that huge market of adults," says current president Jerry Falwell Jr.

Online enrollment slows, but still beats traditional enrollment

The transition into online education did not come without faculty resistance, but because professors do not have tenure at Liberty, they do not hold much sway over management decisions. "Even our faculty was against it, because it's new, it's not traditional, it's not what they're used to. But eventually they embraced it," says Falwell Jr.

A marketing strategy based in business

About 800 enrollment-management employees run what is essentially a call center from a former Sears down the road from campus. Workers are tasked with rapidly enrolling prospective students, who are usually found within lists purchased from online search websites, during a 7- to 10-minute phone call.

The university tracks recruiters' call lengths, successful enrollments, and number of times they were put on hold as part of its Key Performance Indicators. Signs such as "Personal Break" and "Lunch" alert managers to the reason recruiters are not at their cubicles.

The university uses technology to bring education to a mass audience, much as his father used television to grow the church audience, says Falwell Jr.

Three programs tie as 'Best Online MBA Program'

And Liberty knows its audience—its average online student is 36 years old, has some higher ed learning, and values Christian morals. As a result, religion and learning are tied throughout the university's courses.

Now, the school is expanding into the bilingual arena, which university co-founder Elmer Towns sees as an entry point for thousands of new students in South America.

A bumpy road

The university has nearly collapsed on a few occasions, the Chronicle notes. Early on, much of its revenue came from Falwell's television ministry, but donors stopped giving after a set of religious broadcaster scandals.

"We were so broke for so long, we got really good at managing debt. Managing money was new to us," says Falwell Jr.

Today, the university boasts $1.1 billion in reserves that it treats as an endowment. When other institutions struggled financially from 2008 to 2012, Liberty's operative revenues increased 630%, according to Moody's Investors Service.

Lessons for the industry

Although Liberty's mission and marketing culture do not fit every higher ed institution, its story offers four main lessons for colleges and universities looking to transition into online education, says Stripling.

1. Be sure to align university mission and offerings. Though they may be studying far away, online students are required to take at least nine credit hours with a biblical emphasis.

2. Be unique. Liberty's Christian mission does not attract every student, but its brand differentiates it from other universities.

3. Foster a sense of community online. Just because students are not on a campus does not mean they should feel separate from those who are. Liberty streams a Convocation event live three times a week, which allows all students to participate.

4. Study the market. Liberty goes after a specific set of adult learners, tailoring its programming to the needs of those students instead of trying to cast a wide net and compete with other institutions (Stripling, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/23).

The takeaway: One mammoth online, religious university offers four major lessons for other higher education institutions. To learn more about EAB's take on adult online learning, visit the COE forum.

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