Dr. Purcell discussed current challenges in optometric education and efforts NECO is putting forth to make the institution more responsive to the needs of the student body.

Dr. Purcell discussed current challenges in optometric education and efforts NECO is putting forth to make the institution more responsive to the needs of the student body. Click image to enlarge.

Interesting things are afoot at NECO. The venerable college is addressing two big issues in optometric education: reducing student debt and expanding the applicant pool. 

At an event this morning, President and CEO Howard Purcell, OD, announced an opportunity for tuition coverage wherein students who commit to work for five years after graduation for a participating company will have their education expenses paid by their employer, finding themselves debt-free at the end of the employment term. They can then choose to stay employed there or move on. Students already enrolled at NECO can make a three-year employment commitment in exchange for having their last two years of tuition covered. Dr. Purcell said that about 20% of NECO’s current third-year students have taken the option.

Dr. Purcell likened the initiative to the GI Bill program that gave World War II veterans tuition coverage in exchange for their service. Addressing the employers in the audience, Dr. Purcell said, “Look at the benefits on the other side that you get when our students graduate and what they generate in terms of revenue for companies. It’s important that [employers] have some skin in the game.”

The first wave of employers are FYidoctors, Vision Source and Warby Parker. Four other companies are in discussions with NECO, Dr. Purcell said.

Explaining that about 75% of the revenue at schools and colleges of optometry comes from students’ tuition, Dr. Purcell expressed the view that such a funding mechanism is untenable for educational institutions long-term. “Any spend we make, it’s students’ money,” he reminded the audience, adding that “we cannot allow our students and graduates to continue to accrue this incredible debt.” The employer-funded tuition program can help alleviate NECO’s reliance on its student body as a revenue base.

The second program, a hybrid online/in-person educational curriculum, aims to bring new optometry candidates into the student pool from regions of the country with no local optometry college (33 states do not have one, Dr. Purcell noted). Students who travel out of state for their education tend to not return after graduation, Dr. Purcell said. The program hopes to address the dire need for eye care in many underserved communities by creating opportunities for new ODs to be trained locally, and remain there upon graduating, but still gain the advantages conferred by the NECO curriculum.

Students will perform their hands-on clinic learning in their local areas but will have the didactic portion of their education take place online. This, Dr. Purcell explained, is in line with the usage patterns of existing optometry students in traditional programs. Many students already choose to access lectures online now rather than in person, reflecting changes in habits borne by the pandemic and a greater desire for flexibility in their daily schedules. “We have to be more creative in the way we’re delivering education,” Dr. Purcell said. “Not everybody learns in the same way.”

The hybrid curriculum is currently being reviewed by ACOE to achieve the milestones needed for accreditation, Dr. Purcell noted, and is contingent on such approval before proceeding. Once those criteria are met, he hopes to launch the program in 2023 or 2024. Additional details will be announced as they are finalized.

Dr. Purcell’s presentation this morning was part of a think-tank of sorts called the Industry Collaborative that he is spearheading at NECO. The annual event brings together stakeholders from education, industry, research, clinical practice and other facets of eye care to address challenges the profession faces today and tomorrow. The event began yesterday with a panel discussion about the evolving role of telehealth services and online vision testing. Other talks today included a student panel addressing the goals and priorities of new entrants to the field and a conversation with industry leaders about their support for students and recent graduates.