Reduce the time it takes to complete a degree and better serve the growing population of students who are less likely to persist through a traditional semester-based curriculum in a face-to-face setting. That was the mandate at the heart of launching TCC Connect Campus, the newest and fastest-growing campus of Tarrant County College District, Fort Worth, Texas. The fully online accredited campus serves more than 20,000 students virtually through a variety of eLearning and accelerated programming options—all from its 30,000-square-foot office suite.
For the district, the separate stand-alone virtual campus offers a new model for centralizing online education initiatives, broadening the district’s outreach to nontraditional student populations, and increasing student contact hours efficiently and cost-effectively. For students, the campus provides a convenient and flexible menu of options for completing an associate’s degree in as few as 18 months. The combination of online learning options helps students with different learning styles and preferences, or with evolving life and work situations, to continue progressing through their coursework more quickly, thereby increasing their chances for successful completion of a degree or certificate.
Turning Byways Into Highways
While TCC has offered a distance education component for more than 40 years, the district had never structured its programming in any cohesive manner, with distance and dual-credit programming scattered throughout the district’s five campuses. Our former chancellor became the champion behind creating the TCC Connect Campus as a means to centralize online learning through a separate virtual campus in order to provide more robust, higher-quality programming with defined pathways to an online degree.
Also prompting her urgency to find a way to better serve nontraditional students was hard-to-ignore data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Its 2013 report indicated that for the TCC District and its then five campuses, students were taking, on average, 4.4 years to complete their associate’s degree and accumulating, on average, 90 credit hours in the process. Not only were students taking twice as long to complete their degrees, they were taking in excess of 50 percent too many credits above the required 60 credits to complete their journey.
At that time, the district was in the midst of its Vision 2015 strategic plan. Among other priorities, the plan called for providing increased access and opportunity for students across Tarrant County. With five brick-and-mortar campuses already serving the region, our pay-as-you-go district was neither interested in, nor in a position to fund, a new $500-million campus. The launch of TCC Connect Campus as an administration priority in 2013 set in motion a mandate to move quickly to develop a virtual campus overseeing all distance and online learning. I was hired in June 2013 and spent much of that first academic year building the concepts and structure for a fully online campus.
By the fall of 2013, I gained control of all the sections of online offerings across all campuses. Each campus had a different section number as the first digit of the course offerings. While we grouped all courses under the new campus, we kept those distinct section numbers intact for the first year as a means to “know where all the marbles were.” By fall 2014, we combined and categorized all sections under the same numbering system and officially launched TCC Connect Campus as the district’s sixth campus. In November 2014, at the end of my first 18 months, we applied for recognition as a separate TCC campus through our accreditation agency, SACSCOC (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges).
We used the remainder of the 2014–15 academic year to continue to refine our operations. By September 2015, we received our initial accreditation such that we could operate as an independent campus, offering fully online degrees. That was also when we became more intentional with programming and seeking our own dedicated faculty. Once we essentially brought everything under one roof, after inheriting all existing online coursework, we worked closely with instructional designers and course developers to round out course gaps to create an initial set of online programs.
To date, we offer 18 fully online degree options and certificate programs in accounting, business administration, and office technology. In addition to students seeking fully online programs, we also offer more than 350 online college credit courses and a variety of continuing education classes to all TCC students, including those who wish to take some of the courses they need for a face-to-face program in an online format. In total, TCC Connect Campus is serving more than 20,000 students in some fashion.
While it was important to provide distinct online degree programs, it was equally important to offer them in a manner that best served the needs and preferences of students. The virtual campus offers two modalities: eLearning and Weekend College. While online courses are available in a traditional 16-week semester, two accelerated options are also available: eight-week courses, and monthly. Adding eight-week programs essentially provides students the option to break a long semester into what may be a more manageable courseload for some.
By fall 2017, we also began offering some courses in a monthly-start format. These courses begin at the start of each month and end within the same month, giving students an opportunity to tackle one course at a time in a concentrated format. This option not only provides access to more enrollment choices, it also allows students to select courses they might need after the regular semester begins. This ensures that students can keep making progress without waiting out a full semester until the next course cycle. While the pace of what is essentially a perennial summer session is definitely not for everyone, the monthly-start option can be a huge benefit for those students who excel in a compressed term and for whom the shorter time frame feels more doable for tackling a particular course.
The second component is our Weekend College, which we launched in fall 2014 and is quickly gaining in popularity. This accelerated option consists of seven-week hybrid courses offered through limited in-class instruction during each weekend on the TCC Connect Campus in downtown Fort Worth. Two course options are offered on Friday evenings and repeated on Saturday mornings to provide scheduling flexibility for students. The balance of instruction for each course then takes place online. Each week’s in-class session also includes an hour of student development covering topics such as note-taking skills, time management, and learning styles.
Students who attend the Weekend College courses must be enrolled in a degree program. The possibility for students to complete 60 credits in as few as 18 months is a game changer for addressing student urgency to transition to jobs more quickly. Seventy-two students enrolled in the fully online program in 2014, and by May 2016, we graduated 35 of those initial 72 for a 52 percent rate of on-time graduation.
Depending on program requirements and a student’s life circumstances, these accelerated course options can expedite momentum toward graduation and allow a student to shorten the length of time to complete an associate’s degree to as few as 18 or 20 months. Students can also combine course lengths to create a customized learning experience that works best for their employment, academic, and personal schedules. While not all courses are available yet in these accelerated formats, our aim is to continue adding them to our menu of courses and programs to provide optimum flexibility for students.
It is important to note that while we continue to enhance and expand our fully online degree programming, our virtual campus benefits all TCC students who are enrolled in a degree program. For instance, even students who prefer attending a physical campus may have a life circumstance that requires them to miss part of a semester, or even a full semester. Rather than falling behind or getting out of sequence with a course and having to wait until the next cycle—further delaying degree completion—our course offerings might allow them to still finish a semester having completed their credits. In this way, our college in particular has been contributing to the success of our district’s face-to-face students—so far helping more than 3,000 students advance to complete their degrees.
Bottom line, we want to help all our students pursue the model that best fits with their schedules, responsibilities, and transit availability. Key to accomplishing this is effectively communicating these options to students and better coordination with faculty who can identify when a face-to-face student is having difficulty so that faculty can intervene to refer that student to the virtual campus. The ability to provide an alternate route for students increases their chances of reaching their final destination in a timely manner. Another huge benefit of these faster TCC Connect Campus offerings and modalities is that they aid in the greater goals the State of Texas has through its 60x30TX Higher Education Plan, for which the overarching goal is for at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25 to 34 to have a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2030.
Adhering to our accreditation requirements, the virtual campus provides the same student support services as our district’s face-to-face campuses. Our full suite of services is accessible completely online, including online advising and tutoring, an online writing center, library services, and remote proctoring of tests. We also provide our new student orientation online and offer an online student success workshop series covering time management, study skills, degree planning, and how to de-stress for tests.
Another important element of our student services is our online readiness assessment requirement that every student must complete prior to enrolling. This assesses a student’s aptitude for online learning, including writing speed, basic technology skills, reading rate and recall, and typing speed and accuracy at 20 words per minute. If a student does not make a high enough score to meet requirements the first time, the student can retake the readiness requirement in 24 hours. Once a student achieves a passing score, this is the only time he or she must take the assessment, which provides students a green light to enroll in TCC Connect Campus programs.
Our campus was designed to put as many services as possible in a remote format with time zones that reach longer hours. When the virtual campus was first created, our online advisers were those same advisers attached at the district level. The advisers had originally been tasked to assist face-to-face students who had failed an online course to help them avoid failing in the future. Since 2017, all those online advisers have been acquired by TCC Connect Campus. In addition to two full-time academic advisers, we now have 17 part-time advisers who are scheduled to be available to students from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. across three time zones. This ensures that someone is nearly always available to assist students when they are making time to study. For instance, a student who works all day and has family responsibilities in the evenings can still get into a session at 10 p.m. All advisers are trained to interact with students by phone, videoconference, e-mail, or chat. Since expanding our advising services in 2017, we have experienced a 38 percent increase in outreach to students.
Academic advisers are always available to help students identify program options of interest and to select coursework and sequence of courses to maximize a student’s time toward his or her educational objectives. Advisers can also make referrals for additional assistance. Since most TCC Connect Campus students are typically in close proximity to a face-to-face campus, they are entitled to visit any physical campus if they prefer in-person tutoring, for instance.
Part of our retention and engagement strategy includes an early alert system. When a faculty member indicates that a student has missed an exam or class interaction or assignment, an online adviser immediately begins checking in daily or weekly through e-mail or phone calls to make sure that the student has what he or she needs in the way of academic assistance. While this may seem intrusive to some, our strong commitment to shadowing a student through the end of a semester, or until he or she graduates, provides an important point of contact that keeps students motivated and moving forward with whatever help they need. Again, since the majority of TCC Connect students do reside in the local area, any specific services needed can also be delivered in-person if the student prefers.
Several underlying challenges in the creation of TCC Connect Campus were resolved prior to when I came on board. Naturally, there was some skepticism about developing a fully separate virtual campus and centralizing online learning operations when many held the perception that things were working fine. One initial sticking point was what might happen to the funding of various departments on the district’s brick-and-mortar campuses once enrollments for all online courses were pulled out to become part of the virtual campus.
Indeed, this new approach to centralize efforts did raise issues related to funding. The creation of the virtual campus initially removed portions of enrollment funding from some departments on other campuses and gave the appearance of drops in enrollments. In reality, within the span of two years, enrollments and resource reallocations were all but made up through an overall boost in enrollment across the district.
One advantage in our case is that the district has a centralized services infrastructure with regard to IT, HR, payroll, academic affairs, enrollment management, financial aid, registration, and so forth. This came into play to the benefit of TCC Connect Campus with regard to our access to faculty. Because our district operates as one college with six campuses, we had immediate access to faculty who were already teaching online courses. That provided a jump start for our efforts to add to the virtual campus’s needs for full-time, part-time, and adjunct faculty. Currently, the majority of faculty are dedicated to our campus and are able to teach across the variety of course formats for 16-week, eight-week, or monthly-start programs, as well as the seven-week Weekend College terms. It has been essential to us in our hiring that we bring faculty on board who are able to teach in every lane.
It is important to emphasize that TCC Connect Campus is a true campus. We are not a distance learning department. We must meet all the responsibilities set by our state accreditors. These include the success of students, hiring of faculty, delivery of degree programs, and scheduling of course sections. While the virtual campus may occupy the smallest footprint of the district’s campuses, we have a big impact. We are third in total enrollment of all TCC campuses and have the highest return on investment when factoring in the student contact hours we generate. In this way, we are helping the district retain the highest possible percentage of performance-based funding from the state. The other benefit of our virtual campus is that we are now completely scalable with an ability to add more sections of courses with relative ease.
Constructing More On-Ramps
One of our next endeavors as TCC’s virtual campus is to expand our external partnerships. With a growing population, our region is always in need of more high school teachers, but individuals who possess training and knowledge in key areas, including math and science, may not meet education certification requirements. We are looking to partner to provide an alternative online licensure pathway for individuals so that they can conveniently take the courses they need—often an additional 15 to 18 credits—in order to transition to teaching.
Likewise, we are looking to increase our partnership with the Fort Worth Independent School District and another institution for a 2+1 program, in which students take two years of coursework at TCC—plus one year at Texas Tech—all fully online. During his or her third year, the student is also placed in a classroom with a master teacher for an intensive internship leading to a hired position once coursework is complete. We plan to add a fully online credential in the area of bilingual education and English as a second language.
We are also exploring an industry partnership in the area of IT networking, coding, troubleshooting, and IT management, leading to credentials to manage networks and provide IT and help-desk support. These professionals are often already delivering services within a fully online work environment, so it makes sense that coursework for these skills is virtualized as well. To date, we’ve also been able to secure articulation agreements with six four-year universities. This allows TCC Connect Campus online students to complete their associate’s degree and continue seamlessly as juniors at these four-year institutions.
At the same time that many higher education institutions are facing reduced budgets, diminishing enrollments, and continued increases in operating costs, the reality is that we now live in an era that allows education to be more accessible, applicable to real life, and more individualized and tailored to students’ needs. For their part, students are demanding flexible schedules and accelerated options that allow them to complete credentials faster while reducing their overall costs. Similarly, employers continue to stress their growing needs for professional, trained candidates. These shifts in expectations and demands have been driving forces behind the virtual campus and its success.
As educators, we all now know that online and accelerated programs can provide new streams of revenue, as well as the ability to reach new markets and serve underserved and nontraditional student populations. Through our process of launching the TCC Connect Campus, the educational advantages, costs, methods, and management of a fully virtual campus have all been extensively researched and tested. Our outcomes continue to demonstrate the need, validity, and feasibility of these programs and strategies. With all that we have accomplished already as a young campus, in many respects TCC Connect is only getting started down this road, with miles more to go.
CARLOS R. MORALES is president of Tarrant County College’s TCC Connect Campus, Fort Worth, Texas.