New National University System Will Focus on Adult Learners, Liberal Arts

Antioch and Otterbein universities plan to pool resources to combine adult learning and workforce development with a liberal arts education.
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  • Partner institutions will keep their individual brands but share adult learner and graduate programs.
  • Shared programs from Otterbein and Antioch could be offered as early as fall of 2023.
  • Otterbein and Antioch hope to further expand the system to include more institutions.

Two private liberal arts universities are uniting to tackle higher-education trends accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic: workforce development, online education, and adult learning.

Antioch University and Otterbein University this month announced a plan to pool their resources for graduate programs and adult learning. The new system aims to contain costs by collaborating and sharing resources to offer both career education and a wide range of programs to students.

The schools hope to launch shared programs in fall 2023. The plan is to eventually expand the system to include more programs and institutions. The Antioch-Otterbein system is not a merger, and each institution will retain its own individual brand.

William E. Groves, chancellor of Antioch University, told BestColleges that his institution has been studying trends in higher education for years. And those trends suggest there will be a "consolidation" in the sector akin to what has occurred in the U.S. healthcare industry over the last two decades.

Antioch wanted to create a system where schools share resources while retaining their own brands and culture, he said.

"We conceived of it as a justice league," Groves said. "A justice and democracy league focused not just on educating for careers and gainful employment, but educating students in the values of social justice and democracy."

Otterbein President John Comerford told BestColleges that this new system will help partner schools take advantage of each other's strengths. Otterbein, an undergraduate powerhouse, will have access to Antioch's adult-learning expertise.

"We really see a power in the system idea, where a school like Otterbein can keep its traditional undergraduate program, and we're still our own accredited institution doing what we've always done," Comerford said. "But then it gets us into the growth market of adult learners, which is something that Otterbein by itself is not well set up to do — but Antioch is."

Highlighting the Value of Liberal Arts Education

Central Ohio, where Otterbein is located, is a hot job market, with Intel planning to spend billions to set up a massive microchip factory in the area.

That new plant won't necessarily require a college degree for a job, Comerford said. But jobs there will require certification that the new Antioch-Otterbein system would be able to offer.

While such certifications will be critical, Comerford said stacking that certification as part of a larger degree program will offer learners more career mobility in the long term.

"If it doesn't stack into a degree program, when that person wants to change industries, when that person wants a promotion, when they become a manager, eventually that well-roundedness will matter," Comerford said. "And so I think through this Antioch partnership and the system we're creating, we can do the short-term certificates, but we need to make sure that those adult learners can apply that later on toward degrees."

“The value of a liberal arts degree slowly builds over time to a high return on investment as careers progress, according to a ranking of return on investment by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.”

Quotation mark

The value of a liberal arts degree slowly builds over time to a high return on investment as careers progress, according to a ranking of return on investment by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Groves noted that employers have in recent years sought to retain and educate existing employees via partnerships with colleges and universities.

"There is a recognition among industry that it's cheaper to retain people than go out and hire people," Groves said. "One of the ways you retain people is you provide education to them, so they have upward mobility."

Tech companies have in recent years embarked on a workforce development race, often partnering with community colleges and other higher-education institutions to offer degrees and certifications to their employees.

Amazon, for example, offers prepaid tuition to hourly employees as part of its Career Choice program. Google earlier this year expanded its career certificates to more rural community colleges as part of a pilot program. And Microsoft previously announced a campaign to recruit thousands of people from community colleges into the cybersecurity field.

Comerford said a liberal arts education in addition to career certificates and job training will also help students adapt to ever-changing industries.

"I just can't imagine a career that isn't going to be totally different in 10 years, much less the arc of a 40-year career," he said. "And so what the liberal arts is, is it's a toolbox. If it's a training program, you're being given one tool. So we're training you how to use a wrench, and that prepares you for a job that requires a wrench, and that's great. But eventually, that job will change."

Continued Adaptation in Higher Education

Antioch has long pioneered adult education and national higher-education systems, first expanding into other states from its original Yellow Springs, Ohio, location in the 1960s.

The university has also endured financial tumult, splitting from its "Antioch College" Yellow Springs residential campus more than a decade ago amid exigency. The university now has campuses across the country, with a focus on adult learners.

Groves said Antioch laid out three criteria for the new system in searching for an initial partner: mission consistency, financial viability, and a portfolio of programs that would be "accretive, and not just additive."

"We didn't want to just repeat the programs we had and compete with each other. We wanted programs that were going to be different and complementary," Groves said.

The university considered hundreds of potential partners and landed on Otterbein. Comerford said Otterbein had been approached by multiple universities about mergers, but Antioch's collaborative model stood out.

"The way we set this up, it's scalable, so that the other partnerships we've been talking about can still eventually come to pass. And we have what we hope is a system that has multiple institutions, not just two," Comerford said.

The planned national liberal arts system was announced amid continuing enrollment declines across higher education. Those declines have been ongoing for more than a decade, but they were accelerated by the pandemic.

Those enrollment declines have forced institutions to innovate to reach students. Comerford said the "silver lining" of the pandemic is that Otterbein now has the infrastructure for robust remote and hybrid learning. He added that faculty have come up with creative ways to engage with students.

"We're seeing more faculty flip their classroom and use technology in a way they hadn't before because we were all forced to learn it," Comerford said. "And, of course, the adult-learning environment is not going to be 100% traditional face-to-face meeting three days a week."

Planning and preparation to launch the national system is well underway, but Groves noted there are multiple steps to go before the system can add new partners. He said Otterbein and Antioch will seek regulatory approval over the next year and hope to close the deal by roughly next June to offer shared learning in the fall of 2023.

The universities' announcement generated "quite a bit of interest" from other potential partners, Groves said, and conversations with those potential partners will continue as the new system takes shape.