The University of Massachusetts will partner with a California university to launch a national online college for adult learners.
UMass announced Tuesday that it will work with Brandman University, a private, nonprofit institution, to expand the state public university system’s online presence.
The UMass plans have been in the works for more than a year, but the pandemic and ensuing economic upheaval, especially for Black and Latino students, has have underscored the need for more flexible and affordable options for higher education, said Katherine Newman, chancellor for academic programs for the UMass system.
The coronavirus crisis has disproportionately hit Black and Latino students, who are not only more likely to get sick but to lose their jobs. The Black unemployment rate jumped to 16.8 percent in May; among Latinos, it climbed to 17.6 percent, compared to 12.4 percent for whites.
As the country emerges from the pandemic, workers will have to be retrained, Newman said.
“The jobs available before may not be available after,” she said. “This is a matter of economic survival for the people we are trying to help.”
UMass and Brandman must still work out the financial details of their partnership, but a deal should be in place by year’s end, with classes beginning early next year, said Don Kilburn, the head of UMassOnline.
UMass president Martin Meehan first announced plans for a national online college to compete with the likes of long-established national players such as Arizona State University, Southern New Hampshire University, Purdue Global, and Penn State World Campus in March 2019.
At the time, Meehan said, too many Massachusetts students — especially those who are older and trying to earn degrees while juggling jobs and family responsibilities — were turning to national online education providers,
New England is also facing a demographic shift, with the number of young people shrinking, which puts financial pressure on colleges and universities that rely on student revenue.
Traditionally, UMass has had fewer than 6,000 students taking online classes only. But officials hope the UMass brand, marketed nationally, will draw many more students to the online-only college.
UMass officials contacted 100 institutions over the past year to find the best partner and model for the online venture, Kilburn said.
UMass settled on Brandman because it has developed partnerships with businesses such as Discover, Walt Disney Co., and Walmart to offer workforce development programs online. Brandman has a strong history of making sure students stay on track and complete their degrees, Newman said.
Brandman, part of the private Chapman University system, offers both online and on-campus programs. It serves about 24,000 students nationwide.
Chapman University’s president, Daniele Struppa, said in a statement that Brandman could not grow without a partner.
“The time has come for Brandman to expand its reach,” Struppa said. The UMass partnership is an “ideal fit for Brandman’s next step.”
Launching online-only programs has been challenging for public university systems. The costs of recruiting students, hiring faculty, developing strong online counseling, and creating tracking systems to ensure students succeed have caused many universities to either scale back or abandon their plans.
UMass officials said that by partnering with an established participant in this market, they hope to avoid the pitfalls.
How much the venture will cost is unclear. But UMass officials expect the online college to pay for itself, Kilburn said.