Whenever he’s on the graduation stage handing diplomas to students who have overcome great odds, Warren County Community College President William Austin realizes the payoff that can come from making the transformation to digital learning.
The leader of the northwestern New Jersey college recalls one particular student whose parents didn’t support her quest for higher education, either financially or emotionally. “This student had struggled to make it through, often without the books,” Austin said. But after Warren County began giving all enrollees day-one access to low-cost digital course materials and student support services, that student completed her community college studies and went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
Iowa Western Community College has seen similar benefits. Before it took the digital leap, many of its students arrived to class without course materials because they couldn’t afford them, and they quickly fell behind, said Marjorie Welch, the college’s vice president of academic affairs. More than 50% of Iowa Western’s enrollees are first-generation college students, including many from low-income families, and 70% of the study body is eligible for Pell Grants. By adopting an institution-wide digital learning platform with day-one access, Iowa Western administrators and faculty aimed to close the affordability gap and prepare all students for graduation and career success.
Interest From Institutions of All Sizes
Community colleges and small institutions aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of a switch to digital learning. The University of Missouri System, with more than 72,000 students in four locations, including its original flagship campus in Columbia, is another Cengage Unlimited Institutional Partner. After completing a pilot program in fall 2018 for 100 marketing students at the Columbia location, the university began offering Cengage Unlimited subscriptions in January 2019 to all of the approximately 40,000 students enrolled in Cengage courses.
And Liberty University, the largest private, nonprofit university in the nation and the largest university in Virginia with enrollment topping 100,000, has found that its Cengage Unlimited subscriptions save its students nearly $1,000 annually on course materials through unlimited access to more than 20,000 digital course materials spanning a total of 675 courses covering 70 subjects. This includes eBooks, online homework and study guides — for one price.
Behind every decision to implement a digital learning system at a college or university is the desire to make it easier for more students to access the rewards of higher education. That means choosing a program that not only creates more affordable access to course materials, but also addresses a wide range of other issues that affect student success — from time management, goal setting and successfully transitioning into a career.
Robust Support is the Key to Success
The challenge doesn’t end there. Even a learning system that looks perfect on paper can’t be effective unless all stakeholders are on board, properly trained and connected to a reliable vendor support team. A trusting partnership between higher education institutions and digital learning providers is key to solving the affordability challenge and meeting the needs of the whole student during the entire education life cycle — from freshman enrollment through the transition into the workforce.
“Our goal is to always put the customer first and meet them where they are,” said Cengage’s Director of Digital Success, Amanda Dunn. “We realize that success depends on much more than merely getting a course set up, but making sure that institutions have someone they can count on and partner with to ensure their students are successful.”
The company provides customized services, based on what each school needs — whether that’s answering how-to questions about digital products, setting up courses or providing personalized training to ensure both instructor and student confidence from day one.
“We know that the more proactive we can be helping instructors prepare for the first day of class, the better the overall student experience will be, and then we continue that level of support term over term,” Dunn said.
When Warren County and Iowa Western chose to become Cengage Unlimited Institutional Partners, the education and technology company steered the schools through a learning-system overhaul at scale.
As Warren County transitioned to digital learning, some faculty members were already using Cengage products, while others — along with their students — were unfamiliar with the system. Given that reality, Austin was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was little resistance to the change, despite plenty of questions.
“There were none of the major issues I expected, like students not wanting to move to the digital platform, faculty refusing to — none of that happened,” Austin said. “And I think that really came from the level of support we got. ”
Ahead of the rollout of Cengage Unlimited Institutional on her campus, Welch said there was a mixture of excitement and wariness among those who would use the program. Encouraged by the opportunity to make course materials more affordable with day-one access, most Iowa Western faculty members eagerly began selecting what they wanted for their classes, although a few others have been a bit hesitant, Welch acknowledged.
“For the most part, we’ve had a very quick buy-in from almost all parties,” she said. “I would say there’s a few faculty that are nervous, that like to be in their comfort zone, have been there for a number of years, and are needing a little nudge to move out of that.”
The most common feedback from the slower adopters? “Just lots of questions, and often questions that I can’t answer, so I turn to the experts at Cengage that can,” Welch said.
The common thread has been that a seamless transition to digital learning depends on having vendor support in managing how the change affects users at all levels of readiness.
“We expected pushback on this, because it’s a massive change,” Austin said. “Once we were engaged, once we were moving forward and once we had committed fully and we were using the materials, the conversation changed.”
Instead of a discussion focused on “Will this really work?” it became “Look at what’s working; look at what we found; look at what we’re doing now,” Austin continued. “People went from the natural fear of change to pride in what they were able to accomplish.”
Reaping the Benefits in Costs and Graduation Rates
Austin noted that higher education has engaged in a wide range of efforts to address the affordability crisis, and for Warren County Community College, the move to digital learning has had the biggest effect. As he says, partnering with Cengage to provide an affordable and successful learner experience has produced dramatic results.
“With a single decision after 16 years as president, I was able to reduce the cost of textbooks to a point where I can literally say it costs less to go to our college today than it did when I was president 16 years ago,” Austin said.
The academic results are promising, too. Just one semester after implementing Cengage Unlimited across the entire institution, Warren County achieved a 47% graduation rate — more than double the national average for a community college — and Austin said he believed the college is poised to pass the 50% target set by the American Association of Community Colleges.
“I truly believe that [Cengage Unlimited Institutional] is going to be the thing that finally gets us over that hurdle.”