Eastern Connecticut State University is offering more flexible online master’s programs in an attempt to pull the school out of a deficit and attract students from different areas of the country.
University administrators have said they hope the new degrees in accounting, management, applied data science and special education will boost revenue at a time when the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities are looking at a multimillion-dollar deficit.
During a Board of Regents meeting in November, Eastern President Elsa Nunez touted the new master’s programs as a strategy the university was using to address an expected $8 million shortfall in 2025.
“I must say, it was embarrassing to see what little offering we had in master’s programs,” Nunez said. “We have excellent faculty doing the work, but we just were not maximizing the opportunities that we had for online.”
The university already offers online master’s degrees in accounting, management, and in special education. But the current online offerings, explained Dean Niti Pandey, were 15-week courses that students had to take at a specific time. The classes in the new programs will be seven weeks each, taking place asynchronously, so students can watch lectures and complete classwork on their own schedules.
A full-time student, Pandey said, could complete an online master’s degree within a year.
University Vice President and Provost William Salka noted that Willimantic, where Eastern is located, is not a high-density population center. And Pandey said that since the majority of people interested in master’s degrees at Eastern are mid-career professionals, this program would be ideal for someone already trying to balance work and family life.
“It’s just not realistic to expect people who are working professionals to drive to Willimantic on a Tuesday night for a class from 7 to 10 [p.m.],” Salka said. “And so by moving them online, people from really all over the country will have access to them and not have to physically ever be on campus.”
As part of the effort to attract students, Salka explained that the university contracted with Bisk, an online marketing and management firm that touts itself as helping schools improve student retention and recruitment. Bisk will receive 50 percent of the tuition dollars that students pay.
Salka said the partnership with Bisk was necessary to compete with other online universities that spend far more money than Eastern does on marketing their courses.
“[Bisk] is doing all of the marketing to get our name and our brand out there. And that’s what’s going to drive enrollments. If we were doing it just on our own, these would be very small programs with 30 to 40 students in each. Partnering with Bisk, we anticipate hundreds of students in each,” he said.
Salka told CT Examiner that the university estimates it can bring in $600,000 this year from the online courses offered in the spring, and around $2 million next year.
The university previously came under fire from professors for its partnership with Bisk. Lyndsey Lanagan-Leitzel, a psychology professor and the president of Eastern’s faculty union, told CT Examiner that, had she known in advance about the contract, she would have protested. She referred to the company as “problematic,” and said she didn’t like the idea that half the tuition dollars from the students would be going to the company.
In May, the faculty union signed an agreement with the university stating that the Bisk contract would not supplant any of the teaching or course development work that current faculty are doing.
Lanagan-Leitzel said she hadn’t heard from professors that the agreement had been violated, and she hoped that it wouldn’t be. She said she knew faculty members were enthusiastic to teach the courses.
“I’m keeping an eye on the situation as much as I can. I’m hoping that it’ll be successful. I know our provost and president really believe that Bisk is going to bring in all kinds of students,” she said. “They’d better. Because the agreement is that 50 percent of the tuition dollars are going to this company.”
Following the market
Pandy told CT Examiner that the four degree programs moved online were chosen to align with increased demand in the market.
The accounting degree is meant to prepare students to take the CPA exam, which Pandey said students have had great success with in the past. A university news release noted that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that accountants and auditors will add about 67,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.
Pandey also explained that the university overhauled its management degree, which centers around diversity, equity and inclusion management, talent management and strategic leadership, along with an optional concentration in health care management.
The new applied data science program is designed to teach students to collect, clean and summarize data, and to run data analyses. It culminates with a capstone project where students can intern for a company and get hands-on experience. Salka said Eastern already had partnerships with companies willing to take on students, most of them in the insurance industry.
“It’s really a creative program. But what it will teach and prepare them to do is go work in industry doing data analytics — in which virtually every industry needs — doing data analytics in that industry,” Salka said.
Pandey said the online special education master’s degree was meant to address the widespread shortage of special education teachers. He said the courses were structured around the school year and that teachers could do their practical components in the schools where they currently work.
Salka said he believed the university’s online programs would stand out among other colleges due to the small class sizes — capped at 25 students each — faculty investment, and opportunities for hands-on experiences and interactions with classmates.
“We have full-time faculty teaching those courses. … Most online grad programs are taught by part-time faculty who are less engaged with their students,” Salka said. “I think the faculty have really designed some very creative curricula that really provide the skills that students need to be successful in their careers.”
He also noted the new degree offerings were relatively inexpensive compared to other programs. The current cost is about $714 per credit hour, or about $21,400 for a full program before fees, although that amount is expected to increase next year.
Courses begin in January, and admissions are made on a rolling basis.