Eastern Oregon University has begun to look into partnering with Pearson, an online program management company designed to increase the online enrollment and retention rate.

On Thursday, EOU Board of Trustees heard from David Vande Pol, the school’s executive director of regional outreach and innovation, said he’d like to begin a conversation with the board about making the partnership a reality.

“EOU needs help,” said Sarah Witte, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “That’s the ‘lend me your ears’ statement. One of our greatest challenges is online enrollment. We need a different approach. We need out-of-the-box thinking.”

She said there needs to be some investment made if the university is going to be meet its goal of 5,000 full-time equivalent online students by 2029.

“This is a momentous moment,” Witte said.

Vande Pol said the current moment requires innovation.

“Innovation is hard work. It makes you unpopular, and it’s risky,” he said.

However, he said, that is what is required in order to develop strategic partnerships, increase enrollment and retention and make brand recognition even better at EOU.

He said the way to accomplish these goals is to take hold of the growing trend of working adults pursuing degrees online.

“There’s a vertical line that continues to grow — working adults who need bachelor’s degrees,” he said. “Five thousand is a challenging number but attainable — just not how we’re doing it now.”

Pearson is one of the top seven online program management companies in the nation, Vande Pol said.

The OPM company would provide marketing, recruitment and retention services.

“They would have a team specifically working for EOU,” he said.

Pearson would handle the operational side of the online programs at EOU, he explained. The faculty would continue to teach the classes.

This is not a unique path to take in the higher education field, he said. Dozens of schools utilize OPMs.

Vande Pol noted that EOU has seen six years of declining enrollment.

“We feel confident that Pearson has the ability to turn this around,” he said.

The contract with the OPM company would be for 10 years. Pearson would pay for the starting costs and then receive a portion of the enrollment fees from students who enroll at the university because of Pearson’s services.

Cyril Juanitas Jr., vice president of business development at Pearson, said at the meeting Thursday the university will retain complete control over admission tuition rates and will still have control over the course content and how many students are enrolled in a class.

Overall, the board of trustees responded positively to Vande Pol’s proposal. Some had hesitations, though.

Trustee George Mendoza said he liked that the university is looking toward the future with this partnership.

“We need to keep moving with our goals,” he said. “But are we keeping the EOU culture intact? I don’t want us to lose our identity.”

Rob Bishop, vice president of business development at Pearson, told the board Thursday this is not outsourcing.

“We’re going to be creating new jobs,” he said. “It’s augmenting you. The students will still come through your system.”

Dixie Lund, former president of the university, said she was fascinated by this proposal.

“Online classes were evolutionary 30 years ago,” she said. “It was a thorn in the side of the financial aid office, the bookstore and the faculty.”

However, she said, things were looking up when the university added the online component — for a while.

“Things have changed,” Lund said. “We can’t do what we have been doing.”

Lund asked whether EOU’s regional directors would be impacted by this partnership. Those employees are off-site in other areas of the country recruiting students.

President Tom Insko replied the directors are an integral part of the staff and its strategy.

The two key questions centered on how a partnership with Pearson would affect the faculty and what financial impacts it would have on the university. The faculty would not be impacted other than having more students enrolled in online classes, which could bring in more professors to fill the need, the Pearson representatives claimed.

Online growth will have a tremendous impact on how EOU grows, Insko noted.

“The objective is to do what’s right for Eastern Oregon University,” he said.

The trustees agreed that the potential partnership needed to be an ongoing conversation. The final decision will be made in May.