As students and their families have become increasingly value-conscious, and competition has heated up, the presidents of small, independent colleges have had to find ways to reduce costs, increase enrollments, or both.  These pressures have often meant curricular changes.

The humanities have been hit hard by these trends. As the number of humanities majors has declined, small colleges have struggled to maintain a robust humanities course catalog—and, in particular, a set of needed upper-level courses—for the majors that remain. The colleges face a Hobson’s choice: offer courses that enroll only a handful of students, which is financially unsustainable, or cut the courses and make it more difficult for students to complete their requirements and graduate on time.

student in classroom


The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), a membership organization of nearly 700 of these independent, non-profit colleges and universities, launched an initiative in 2014 to see whether a combination of instructional technology and cross-institutional collaboration could mitigate the humanities challenges of small colleges. With funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, CIC created a consortium of 21 of its members who would support one another in the design of online, upper-level humanities courses that would then be offered to students at all of the participating colleges. The Consortium was intended to further three goals:

  • To provide an opportunity for CIC institutions to build their capacity for online humanities instruction and share their successes with other liberal arts colleges;
  • To explore how online humanities instruction can improve student learning outcomes; and
  • To determine whether smaller, independent, liberal arts institutions can make more effective use of their instructional resources and reduce costs through online humanities instruction.

CIC engaged a team at Ithaka S+R to design and carry out an assessment of the program and its progress towards these three goals.. We recently published our assessment report on the first year of the consortium.

In a new case study, Leveraging Technology for the Liberal Arts, Deanna Marcum and Clara Samayoa delve deeper into the process of course development and collaboration within the Consortium. Focusing on the experience of six participating institutions, the authors find that both faculty and administrators expressed great satisfaction with the project in the first year.

Several faculty who had not taught online courses before took great pleasure in successfully executing a course. Many were surprised by the extent to which online discussions were as successful or more successful than face-to-face classroom discussions.

The Consortium has also provided a highly beneficial professional development opportunity for faculty. Most of the instructors who participated in the first year of the program had little or no experience in online teaching. The Consortium has given them a reason to get involved. Many of them think that their experience with the Consortium can be used to ameliorate their colleagues’ concerns about online learning.

More generally, the authors posit that the consortial approach to offering upper-level humanities courses holds considerable promise for increasing options for students while containing costs. For humanities students, access to online courses may be an effective way to enjoy a large selection of courses without having to forego the benefits of the liberal arts college environment.