A Pandemic Sales Pitch to International Students: Start Your U.S. Degree Online, At Home

Jul 24, 2020

At 6 a.m. local time on a recent weekday morning, administrators from University of the Pacific used a Zoom call to make a sales pitch for why students from all over the world should pursue a college degree at their sunny campus in Stockton, California.

The area is affordable (by West Coast standards). It’s only two hours from the beach, the mountains and Silicon Valley. And with the university’s red brick buildings, the campus looks straight out of a classic college movie—or, say, like where Indiana Jones taught (part of that movie was filmed on site).

All this could be yours, college leaders told students watching the webinar, if you can make it here for the fall.

That’s a big if, though. As drastically as the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted higher education for American college students, the ill effects could prove even greater for foreign students who hope to start or finish degree programs at U.S. institutions. The American offices abroad that process student visa applications are closed. Flight cancellations and quarantine regulations have restricted international travel. And flip-flopping Trump administration policies about whether foreign students taking online courses can legally stay in the U.S. have left many people scrambling and scared.

This reality cast a shadow over Pacific’s pretty presentation. So before the webinar wrapped up, university leaders made sure to mention a new option for international students. Those unable or unwilling to move to California this fall can start their coursework from their home countries, through a new model called American Collegiate Live.

Eighteen colleges across the U.S. are extending that same offer. They’re all business partners of Shorelight Education, a private company founded in 2013 that recruits students from more than 170 countries including China, Colombia and Vietnam to enroll at American colleges whose names may not be widely recognized overseas.

The Boston-based company is backed in part by Huron Consulting Group, which invested $13 million in convertible debt in the first quarter of 2020 on top of a combined $27.9 million in 2014 and 2015. At the end of 2019, Huron valued its investment at $49.5 million.

Shorelight was already running an international distance-instruction program this spring, using its proprietary “Shorelight Live” technology to connect young adults in Qatar’s mandatory national service program with faculty in the U.S. through classes that met virtually in real time. When the pandemic hit, the company seized the opportunity to spin this model up into American Collegiate Live, a suite of introductory courses that offer transferable credits accepted by Shorelight’s partner colleges. It’s designed to teach international students wherever they are, no travel required.

Online college classes have typically been a tough sell overseas. Shorelight and its clients hope American Collegiate Live will drum up more interest to help colleges hang on to their international students even during the pandemic. Many colleges count on students from abroad, who typically pay full tuition rates, to balance their books.

So far, student response seems promising, says Chris Hoehn-Saric, general manager of Shorelight Live. Shorelight expects more than 2,000 students to participate in American Collegiate Live this fall, through more than 100 course sections. Depending on which track they choose, they’ll each pay between $10,000 and $14,000 to earn between three and 17 credits.

Meanwhile, college leaders working this summer to recruit more students to the program through marketing webinars are leaning on several selling points. The teaching technology is more advanced than makeshift video calls, they say. Credits earned are backed by the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

And of course, some students won’t have many other options if they want to enroll in a far-off university.

“It’s a wonderful way to start your degree programs in a virtual environment in your own timezone,” Lynn Mentch, director of admissions at Cleveland State Global at Shorelight, told students in a recent webinar. “You can join us on campus at a later semester when you feel comfortable and when everything calms down.”

Public-Private Partnership

Shorelight leaders are careful to avoid calling what American Collegiate Live offers “online” learning. Instead, they describe it as “live-to-device” or “live remote” education.

At a company demonstration this week, students from around the globe gathered virtually to test the program’s tools. They logged into a learning management system, which displays personal profile information, homework assignments and professor office hours. After turning their webcams on, which the program requires, they hit the “join lecture” button to enter a Zoom call with a cheerful instructor who appeared in high-definition, and who said he was calling in from Florida.

The instructor led students through a discussion about cross-cultural differences by encouraging them to respond to live polls through the LMS and asking individuals to share their opinions out loud, on screen. Other tools, like breakout rooms and an interactive white board that everyone can write on, are designed to decrease the sense of distance among students, the instructor said.

The company has applied for a patent for its live remote technology.

“It’s very high fidelity, very fast, with no interruption or staggered delivery, which sometimes happens with Zoom,” says Katherine Newman, interim chancellor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “It’s really conveying a dense interactive classroom experience for the instructor and the students. That’s the principle advantage, I think: It recreates the classroom even across thousands of miles of distance.”

Newman is responsible for helping American Collegiate Live secure its academic bona fides. The University of Massachusetts at Boston has a revenue-share agreement with Shorelight to deliver the program. For additional pay, professors at the university teach the program’s courses, for which the university awards credit that Shorelight’s 20-odd client colleges have agreed to accept.

“At a period when the university itself is experiencing financial stress, this is a way of increasing the revenue coming into the university for the purpose we were built,” Newman says.

Newman, who in August will start a new job as University of Massachusetts system chancellor for academic programs, has worked with the Shorelight team since 2015. For their first joint effort, in 2017, they launched a graduate program in electrical and computer engineering for students in Shanghai, taught by professors at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“It’s a partnership of ideas, and Shorelight is a very inventive, entrepreneurial company,” Newman says. “They were there with the technology resources, and research and development. Even if we had all the ideas, we wouldn’t have had the capacity to execute ourselves.”

Originally, the company’s distance-learning technology was designed to transmit live broadcasts from a studio in the U.S., where a professor would go to teach, to other studios around the world where students would gather as a cohort. It’s no accident that that setup resembles a traditional classroom. Shorelight leaders believe that, for both students and professors, the “face-to-face, tangible, tactile elements of education are really important,” Hoehn-Saric says.

Additionally, Shorelight hired local, bilingual teaching assistants to staff its student studios. That meant, Newman says, “you’re not just beaming out there, you’re supporting people locally as well.”

Of course, the pandemic has made it difficult for professors and students to access Shorelight studios. So American Collegiate Live now enables professors to transmit broadcasts from their homes to students' homes. As shown in the demonstration, instructors can pull up student profiles in real time to help manage class participation and build connections with students.

“When a student has a question—whether distributed across five classrooms or remote classrooms organized in their homes—we want that feedback to be immediate to a professor,” Hoehn-Saric says. “I’m now looking at the 10 hands that have been raised, and I’ll choose the person that hasn’t participated recently but has good grades in class. That’s the psychology built around this.”

American Collegiate Live aims to prioritize student timezone convenience. Courses such as English 101, Introduction to Microeconomics and The Nature of Environmental Problems will be offered this fall between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. ET, which is nighttime for students in East Asia and mid-afternoon for students in the Middle East.

“It does mean a big adjustment for the faculty,” Newman says. “We look for people who are willing to do this early in the morning.”

Changing Global Market

In the international arms race for foreign college students, the U.S. has lately been losing. Undergraduate enrollments among foreign students at U.S. colleges have been dropping, while enrollments at colleges in Canada and Australia have grown. More than a dozen revenue-sharing “pathway program” partnerships between recruitment companies and U.S. colleges have ended in the last few years, some before the pandemic, others during it, according to research by Alan Preece, a global education consultant.

So Shorelight is not the only pathway provider feeling squeezed by the coronavirus crisis, or trying to adapt to it. For example, Australian company Navitas is promoting its new “digital campus” system as a way for international students to keep learning through live virtual Zoom classes, asynchronous study resources and other online support services.

But because Shorelight works only with U.S. colleges, the company’s success, at least through the end of 2020, seems closely tied to whether American Collegiate Live catches on. The company has already contracted. For example, University of the Pacific announced that 13 of the 19 people employed by the college’s partnership with Shorelight were furloughed starting in April.

On the college side, the company’s partners seem on board with American Collegiate Live so far, although not all are actively promoting the program. The University of Kansas, for example, is instead encouraging international students to sign up for its own online courses, so that they have access to the same experience as their American counterparts who also can’t or opt not to attend classes in person.

As for students, Shorelight and Newman will know soon enough whether colleges have sold them on “live-to-device” education. Student applications to American Collegiate Live are due in the middle of August, payments are due in late August, and the program starts in early September.

There are several reasons why foreign students may hesitate to sign up. They are often motivated to study abroad because they’re eager to find job opportunities in their adopted countries after graduation, experts say, and some may fear that starting an American degree program online might not result in their actually getting to the U.S. Others eager for the residential campus experience may not think an online semester, or year, is worth their time or money.

“They want to experience American life, get to know our country and our cities,” Newman says. “This is never going to substitute for that.”

Shorelight’s marketing webinars bear that out. The last question posed during Thursday’s technology demonstration came from a student whom the instructor recognized as a repeat participant.

For the fall semester, the student asked, “is it possible we will be on an actual campus?”

The Shorelight head of marketing replied: “I wouldn’t plan on it.”


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