With its state funding shrinking — and online college classes rising in popularity — Florida International University is banking on students from abroad to boost its finances and expand its academic reach.
In that endeavor, the college is turning to Academic Partnerships, an experienced, successful (and politically connected) player in the fast-growing Internet education industry.
FIU first teamed up with the Dallas-based company in 2009 — creating an online-only Corporate MBA program in which tuition revenue is split between the two parties. Now, FIU is poised to ink another deal: Known as “FIU Global,” the proposed new contract would create an online jointly operated degree program targeting students in Latin America and, eventually, maybe China.
The university’s international reputation could rise or fall based upon the program’s success, and if it’s a significant moneymaker for FIU, it will help shore up a school budget that has been battered by years of state funding cuts.
But the involvement of Academic Partnerships is drawing scrutiny. The company’s close ties to former Gov. Jeb Bush have raised questions of political influence, and FIU signed its first contract in 2009 without notifying faculty.
“I’m very concerned with FIU Global and our relationship with Academic Partnerships,” history Associate Professor Brian Peterson told FIU President Mark Rosenberg at a recent faculty meeting. “It seems like political pressure is being put on FIU to do this thing.”
Since 2009, FIU has made more than $18 million in tuition revenues from the Corporate MBA program — in which tuition costs $37,500. Academic Partnerships collected close to $20 million, initially taking about 70 percent of tuition revenues, though FIU later renegotiated that to about 45 percent. All state universities are allowed to charge higher “market rate” tuition for some graduate degree programs, with the goal of reinvesting the extra money into the university’s budget.
The FIU Global contract is in preliminary discussions, school leaders say. The questions of what degrees it will include (and how the tuition dollars will be split) have not been negotiated.
Some faculty are asking why FIU handpicked Academic Partnerships for both contracts, as opposed to using a competitive process.
Academic Partnerships’ founder and chairman is Randy Best, a close friend of Bush’s. Bush serves on the advisory board for another of Best’s companies, Whitney University System, and in 2011, the former governor co-hosted a “Future of State Universities” conference that was sponsored by Academic Partnerships.
On the company website, Bush and Best appear jointly in a promotional video in which Bush speaks of the “exponential growth” of demand for online degrees, particularly abroad.
“This is a time of incredible change,” Bush says. “Great opportunity, but also great peril for universities that don’t want to change.”
Bush and Best declined to comment for this report.
Rosenberg insists the contracts are not political. For the first contract, FIU leaders said they did informally consider at least one competitor, and they argue that Academic Partnerships has done a good job with the MBA program and deserves additional work. FIU administrators say they aren’t obligated to use a competitive process, and the state does indeed exempt various education-related purchases from that requirement.