Upfront Investment in Online Education Pays Longterm Dividends UMGC’s Miyares Tells Inside Higher Ed Panelists

EDITOR’S NOTE:  We officially changed our name from University of Maryland University College (UMUC) to University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) on July 1, 2019. News stories posted on the Global Media Center are now using the new UMGC name. However, because the transition to the university’s new name will take several months to complete, you may still see the UMUC name, logo and look on our website and other materials through early 2020.

A recent panel hosted by Inside Higher Ed showed how far ahead University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) is in developing online programs aimed at working adults, and how much other universities are striving to catch up.

The panel, part of an Inside Higher Ed conference on the future of public education, examined how online education can help or hurt public colleges. Moderated by Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed’s editor and co-founder, the panelists focused on how online education is reshaping the landscape of public higher education.

UMGC President Javier Miyares, one of four panelists, said that providing distance education to adult learners always has been the university’s sole mission. In 1947, UMGC was established as an offshoot of the University of Maryland to help educate returning World War II veterans. By 1949, it was sending professors overseas to provide classes on U.S. military bases.

“It was only natural in the early 90s for us to explore online education as another channel to deliver distance education,” Miyares said. “It took hold. Our first online courses were offered in 1994. By 1998, 50 % of our stateside courses were offered online, and today about 85% of our course enrollments are online.”

By starting so long ago, UMGC has worked out many of the issues that some state university systems are just starting to address.

“Our business model is very simple,” Miyares said. “The scalability of online allows us to keep tuition low. Volume is important in terms of the tuition we can offer.  First and foremost is the classroom experience, and everything that goes around serving the students online is very different.”

While the Massachusetts system began offering online classes in the early 2000s, with 25,000 students on its five campuses taking some form of online programs today, the state’s board of regents just recently began exploring the possibility to serve the increasing needs of working adults, said Don Kilburn, CEO of UMassOnline.

“It’s an economic engine for the region,” he said. “It’s an area our traditional programs don’t reach. We are working on building a new online program.”

Massachusetts educators have seen about 20,000 of the state’s students attend the neighboring Southern New Hampshire University, one of the nation’s largest online universities.  “They would prefer to go to the University of Massachusetts if it had a comparable program,” Kilburn said, “but it doesn’t.”

That’s when UMassOnline realized what UMGC has understood for decades: providing an education for 18-to-21-year-olds is quite different from serving the needs of 34-year-olds who are juggling work and families.

“We have come to the conclusion that it’s a fundamentally different business model to serve adults where life gets in the way,” he said. “There’s not a monolithic way to do that.”

George Mason University is just now entering the online-delivery field. The university is growing at about a thousand students per year and seeks to provide an education for students in the burgeoning professional job market in the Washington metropolitan area, said Michelle Marks, George Mason’s vice president for Academic Innovation and New Ventures.

But it is the youngest online institution in the nation, she said, adding they started their program in 2015.  So far, the online classes are aimed at existing undergraduate students on campus, not adult learners.

“Now, we have more and more traditional students who pay to come to campus and live in the dorms who are choosing to take online classes because they are comfortable with that,” she said. “They have that expectation.”

George Mason is encouraging its professors to offer more online courses, providing them with training and incentives.

But as the demographic of 18-to-21-year-olds shrinks, many universities realize they must cast their net wider to maintain the size of their student bodies. That means finding adult learners, perhaps among those who previously began school and dropped out, or who joined the military right out of high school. Others are looking to further their education, get a promotion or to improve their employment options.

“We see that many institutions that were not attentive to working adults are beginning to shift,” Miyares said. So, while online education is allowing UMGC to project more academic offerings, he said it also has “begun to bring more competition to that space.”

His comment led to questions about the cost of providing online education and the price universities charge students for it.

UMGC has an advantage since it has already developed its program over years, and for George Mason to duplicate that will be costly, said Marks.

“You don’t have the expertise. You don’t have the competency. And if you are an institution like George Mason that does not have a huge endowment, you don’t have the capital to invest in things you need to support adult working students,” she said.

“To think you can go from a traditional institution to supporting online students without an investment is just not realistic,” she added.

True, Miyares said, but not insurmountable. “Online, if you do it on scale, requires an upfront investment,” he said.  “But after that, as you spread the investment over more students, it becomes less expensive.”

While the technology infrastructure to provide quality, online education is not cheap, it doesn’t require constructing buildings or providing health centers and counseling offices, he said. And online education works better by hiring working professionals to be adjunct professors rather than having costly full-time faculty that also do research, he said.

In fact, adult students prefer to be taught by practitioner-scholars, Miyares added.

“Once you take all of these things into account, the cost of producing online education for working adults at scale can be less expensive than face-to-face.”

For a tuition-driven institution like UMGC, this is important. It enables UMGC to offer the second-lowest tuition and fees in the University System of Maryland.