By Brian Burnsed

Dartmouth's new healthcare delivery program is the first of its kind, but it may not be the last

In what could be a watershed moment for online education, Dartmouth College has announced it will combine professors from its highly rated Tuck School of Business and its Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice to launch a new, mostly online, master's program designed to prepare mid-career healthcare leaders for the future of their profession. With more provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act going into effect this month, the burden of ensuring effective reform has been passed from legislators to healthcare executives. Dartmouth's program aims to help health professionals be ready for whatever may be on the industry's horizon. The 18-month Master of Healthcare Delivery Science program will launch next July. "We don't know how the entire industry is going to reorganize," says Robert Hansen, senior associate dean and professor at Tuck. "All we can do is prepare them for change."

While thousands of colleges have launched online programs in the last several years, Dartmouth is among the first elite colleges to offer a specialized masters degree to those who can't or don't want to move to its idyllic Hanover, N.H. campus. Cornell University and New York University , for example, offer management and professional programs online as well. "Initially traditional schools were more reticent [to offer online programs]," says Trace Urdan, managing director and for-profit education analyst at investment bank Signal Hill Capital. "Now, a lot more are getting involved. They'll be part of the landscape going forward."

While Ivy League schools are ranked among the best in the nation, many are new to the world of online education. Tuck officials, for instance, were unsure of how to best structure the degree given that the school has yet to offer a comprehensive online degree program. School officials turned to online education experts from other schools for assistance, and have looked to to faculty who are eager to use technology. "We're trying to see what people have done well and are trying to improve on it," Hansen says.

While many students seek out online courses to save money, the Dartmouth program won't be a bargain at $85,000, though scholarships are available. But it will be fairly convenient for working professionals who can't take 18 months off. Almost all classes will be conducted online. Students will spend just six weeks on campus.

Many colleges use online courses to reach lots of students, but Dartmouth plans to accept just 50 students into the first session in hopes of keeping the curriculum and discussions intense and intimate. "It's not [University of Phoenix] type of distance learning where they need thousands of people," says Tuck's Dean Paul Danos. "This is very personal -- lots of hand-holding and lots of personal attention."

Danos surmises that other top schools may follow suit with other ultra-specialized online programs for mid-career professionals. Plus, he believes the insight gained from developing this program opens the door for Tuck to make a bigger push into the online realm. "This is our first significant foray into distance education," he says. "This program gets us into a distance mode and we're creating [online] platforms."

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Online Education in the Ivy League