The University of Massachusetts plans to partner with the private, nonprofit Brandman University to grow its online footprint in the state and nationwide.
Officials expect the arrangement to be finalized by the end of the year, with classes starting in 2021, the Boston Globe reported.
UMass is the latest public institution to try to expand online to better compete with large, private online universities, which collectively enroll hundreds of thousands of students each year.
UMass announced plans to launch an online university focused on adult learners more than a year ago. At the time, System President Marty Meehan said the move would help the institution address an "existential threat" to all of higher education — the expected decline in traditional-age students over the next decade.
But the coronavirus pandemic — and its potential impact on state support for higher education as well as enrollment — added new urgency to the effort, officials said.
"A lot of the things that we thought were going to happen to higher education … happened not in three to five years, but in three weeks," said UMassOnline CEO Donald Kilburn.
More than 44 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March, though the number of those collecting benefits is down to roughly 21 million, The New York Times reported.
The pandemic has also shed light on inequities based on race and education levels.
Workers with only a high school degree were more than twice as likely to be unemployed in May than those with a college degree, The Washington Post reported. And Black and Latino workers are disproportionately impacted by coronavirus-related layoffs.
"Given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the vivid impact of racial inequality, a venture that previously seemed important to us is nothing less than essential," Meehan said in a statement.
Brandman will help UMassOnline, which enrolls roughly 25,000 students, improve its technology and student support services for adult students.
There will be no upfront investment in the arrangement from either the state or the university, Kilburn said. When asked if a revenue-share agreement was on the table, he said the pair doesn't have "a strategic plan yet for how we're going to work together."
After talking with more than 100 potential providers, UMass selected Brandman for its experience with working adults, Kilburn said. "We weren't really servicing those students … so we found that there were large numbers of students going to out-of-state providers," he said.
Massachusetts' flagship is one of several public university systems hoping to grow their online presence.
They'll have to contend with large, private universities such as Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors, which have grown their enrollment by targeting adult learners with online education offerings. Although some public universities are attempting to capture a larger part of this coveted market, some higher ed experts contend they've largely fallen behind their private competitors.
Public institutions are taking different approaches to catch up. Purdue University, for example, acquired the for-profit Kaplan University in 2018 to form Purdue University Global, an online college targeting working adults. In return, Kaplan's parent company receives 12.5% of the new school's revenue.
Meanwhile, California has attempted to build its own online college from the ground up. Yet lawmakers are trying to defund the project, saying the burgeoning school merely replicates programs already offered by other community colleges in the public system.
UMass chose to partner with Brandman because building quality online programs and support services on their own would have taken significant money and time. "The COVID crisis just made it even easier because there really is no money," Kilburn said. Massachusetts' budget is "obviously going to decline," he said. "So where is that money going to come from?"