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July 10, 2023

Colleges branch out beyond state footprints to reach more students

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Fairfield University is now trying to attract students in Texas after opening a new nursing school in Austin, Texas in May.

While many colleges are using online learning to attract students from distant places, some are opting to expand their physical campuses beyond their home states.

Fairfield University recently debuted a new nursing-focused campus in Texas, while the Arizona College of Nursing is pursuing a new Connecticut campus in East Hartford.

Rob Schnieders

Rob Schnieders, Fairfield University’s vice president of online strategy and innovation, said the Texas campus is the school’s first expansion outside of Connecticut from a brick-and-mortar standpoint, though it has been providing online courses to reach more students for years.

“Nursing is a critical need, and it is hard to meet the demand without expanding to different geographies,” Schnieders said.

There is an ongoing high national demand for nurses — a field where hands-on learning can be key. Factors such as an aging U.S. population, combined with a wave of nurses reaching retirement age or pursuing different career paths, have fueled that demand.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates about 203,200 openings for registered nurses each year through 2031, with the RN workforce expected to grow by 6% between 2021 and 2031.

In early June, the Catholic Fairfield University formally celebrated the grand opening of its new, nursing-focused satellite campus in Austin, Texas.

Fairfield University’s campus in Fairfield.
Fairfield University’s new campus in Austin, Texas.

The campus represents an expansion of Fairfield’s Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies and features a full-time, accelerated second-degree baccalaureate nursing program.

Students started attending classes there in May. It features classrooms and simulation labs, including a simulated intensive care unit and surgical suite.

Schnieders said the university may add additional programming at the Texas campus over time, particularly healthcare-related classes.

When asked why Fairfield picked Texas, Schnieders said, “Texas had the need, and a high number of individuals hoping to get a bachelor’s degree in nursing.”

“When we did research, we found there were about 5,300 open nursing positions in the Travis County region alone,” Schnieders said. “Health systems are looking for nurses. We thought it was a good fit.”

Another key factor was the presence of local hospitals, which Fairfield University determined would make “great clinical partners,” Schnieders said.

The university, in Texas, has partnered with Baylor Scott & White Health, Ascension Seton, and Central Texas Veterans Health Care Systems. Students who complete the program are eligible to take the National Council Licensure Exam to become registered nurses.

New CT competition

While Fairfield University recently opted to expand outside of Connecticut, another university is doing the opposite by bringing a brick-and-mortar location to Connecticut.

Arizona College of Nursing, which is based in Arizona but has locations around the country, plans to have a 30,000-square-foot location at 99 East River Drive in East Hartford.

It currently has 16 campuses for students to pursue bachelor of science degrees in nursing throughout the country, including in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

The college indicated in January that it wanted to begin enrollment for students for the new Connecticut campus by the fall of 2023.

The college has been working to secure various required regulatory and accreditation approvals. The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, for example, granted the Arizona College of Nursing’s East Hartford campus accreditation in March of this year, with the accreditation valid through Feb. 28, 2027.

Melany Stroupe, director of communications for Arizona College of Nursing, said in late June the school is still involved in the regulatory approval and accreditation process.

Stroupe declined to comment on a potential opening date before everything is finalized.

The college, which was founded in 1991, offers a mixture of classroom learning and hands-on training through simulation labs and clinical rotations.

When the college first began pursuing plans to have a brick-and-mortar school in Connecticut, its leadership cited the nursing shortage here as a factor.

Virtual classroom expansion

Brick-and-mortar expansion across state lines is less common, as most universities, including in Connecticut, are using online learning to expand their reach and grow their student population, especially as the pool of college-age individuals shrinks.

Waterbury-based Post University, for example, has offered online learning for about two decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic led to even more students learning virtually.

Joan Huwiler, director of university communications for Post, said once the pandemic hit, the college was able to quickly ramp up its online capabilities to keep instruction going for current students, while also attracting others who wanted to learn while in lockdown.

Jeanna Sinn

Jeanna Sinn, senior vice president of operations at Post, said its strategy is to focus on online growth.

“As we look at growth, it wouldn’t, from our perspective, come from additional brick-and-mortar locations,” Sinn said.

Post now has students from around the U.S. and about a dozen other countries taking its online courses. Reaching more students who want to learn and be connected, but from the comfort of their own home, is a focus for Post’s recruitment strategy, according to Sinn.

“It is a big population that is up and coming,” Sinn said.

Many students coming out of high school are programmed after 12 years of learning to be in front of a teacher, with live interaction, and they often prefer it as they continue on to college, Huwiler said.

“But for our adult population, online learning continues to soar for us,” she added.

Another element of Post’s growth strategy has been creating career development partnerships with employers, such as Mohegan Sun and Maricopa County in Arizona, and offering their staff members reduced tuition for online courses.

“These partnerships are beneficial not only as a growth strategy for the university, but it is benefitting the organization in terms of retention, maintaining their workforce, and keeping them and their business competitive,” Huwiler said.

Post officials declined to comment on the revenue impact of the school’s online growth strategy.

In January, Middletown-based Wesleyan University announced its partnership with edX, a global online learning platform, indicating it would launch a variety of “Massive Open Online Courses” on in 2023.

Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth said the partnership would give the college the ability to grow its online offerings, “bringing creative and diverse programming to more than 46 million learners around the globe.”

In the future, Sinn sees online learning as becoming less of a niche, and more of a necessity, as colleges and universities try to expand enrollment and reach more students.

“It is necessary to provide that modality for learning,” Sinn said. “As we go through the next decade, it will look like a hybrid, where you can be on campus traditionally, but you also have a ton of online options. There are going to be significant shifts, and there are absolutely going to be some universities that can’t keep up.”

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