Excelsior College, founded to help adults complete degrees online, staggers after curtailing its biggest program over quality concerns. Administrators say “repositioning” is working, but a more competitive market awaits.
As it headed into the 2016 academic year, Excelsior College looked to be on a roll. Revenue from student enrollments and the exam services provided by the private nonprofit institution had risen by roughly $10 million in each of the previous two years, and its budget setters assumed similar growth from 2015 to 2016.
After all, demand for the one academic program overwhelmingly responsible for the budget increases — the associate degree in nursing program, which accounted for nearly half of Excelsior’s students — showed no signs of fading amid a tight nursing job market.
But the college’s leaders knew better: all was not well with the nursing program, which enrolled degree-seeking students who were already registered nurses or licensed practical nurses. Although enrollment of full-paying students continued to boom, topping out around 21,000 in 2016, their outcomes were increasingly a bust. Just one in six of the enrollees — many of them minority women — earned a degree.
“When you are enrolling people who are not going to be able to complete, you are setting them up for debt they can’t repay or spending money and getting no degree in return for that,” James Baldwin, Excelsior’s president since 2016, told a group of employees last month. (A two-hour recording of the conversation, for a time publicly available on an Excelsior webpage, offered an unusually honest glimpse into the college’s internal conversations.)