Sometimes, new challenges demand new solutions.
When I assumed the presidency of University of Maryland University College in 2012, adult higher education was desperate for new solutions. We—and other institutions that serve our constituency—faced what I have termed a “perfect storm.”
Declining enrollments, increasing competition, rising costs, cuts to public and private funding and changing demographics all posed vexing challenges. Taken together, they represented a threat to our very ability to fulfill our public mission—that of providing open access to a quality, affordable and career-relevant education for adult students in Maryland, across the country and around the world.
This is a mission that we have embraced for 70 years, since our university’s inception in 1947 as an innovative program within the University of Maryland College of Education.
As you might imagine, this mission has led us down a sometimes winding path, and agility and flexibility are part of our institutional identity. So I challenged my senior leadership team to think creatively about what we do, how we do it and how we might develop the new revenue streams that we will need to continue to fund academic innovation and keep costs down.
At the same time, we convened a group of outside business leaders—headed by the chair of our Board of Visitors, himself a UMUC graduate—to evaluate long-term challenges and propose changes to our business model that will support a sustainable growth path.
Based on the recommendations of this “Ideation Group,” we proposed a new business model, which the University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents subsequently approved, that better positions us to compete in the adult higher education market, in Maryland and beyond.
In 2016, the Regents also approved initial funding for UMUC Ventures—a non-profit supporting organization that explores new opportunities, while functioning as a holding company for new enterprises with the potential to generate revenue that can help lower the cost of a UMUC education.
The first such enterprise, HelioCampus, is a for-profit company that was spun off from our analytics unit in January 2016. This unit played a key role in guiding our strategic decision-making as we addressed short- and long-term challenges and worked to improve efficiencies. Ownership of HelioCampus has since been transferred to UMUC Ventures.
HelioCampus itself offers an example of how innovation—and a willingness to take risks and embrace change—is part of our institutional culture.
By using analytics, we were able to streamline operations and achieve efficiencies that resulted in policy changes and better-informed decisions about marketing spends. For example, after observing that students who enroll at the last moment are more likely to fail or withdraw, we established a 4-by-4 policy that closes enrollment four days prior to the first class meeting and grants a grace period that allows students to withdraw, without penalty, up to four days after a class begins.
This policy change increased undergraduate completion rates by 7 percentage points over four years while increasing persistence rates by 4 percentage points. At the same time, and again guided by analytics, we were able to increase stateside enrollments by 20 percent even as we reduced advertising expenditures by 20 percent.
While many institutions continue to record enrollment declines, UMUC has seen record-breaking stateside student headcounts for the 2016 summer term, and year-over-year increases of 4 percent in fall 2016 and again in spring 2017.
I am proud to report that the university is on solid financial footing as we work on the next steps in our ongoing journey to create a new way of fulfilling our public mission.
We are now working with the USM’s Board of Regents, the UMUC Ventures Board of Directors and other stakeholders on a similar opportunity that will spin off our technology team into a new company. This new entity will be wholly owned by UMUC Ventures, will continue to serve UMUC and will eventually offer its services to other institutions.
As we complete this process, our guiding principle is the fair and equitable treatment of our transitioning employees. Every member of the technology team will be offered an equivalent position in the new company, with comparable responsibilities, pay and benefits. No one will be left without a job.
Even as we pursue this strategy, we are continuing to invest in programs and initiatives that improve access, affordability and student success.
Our Maryland Completion Scholarship program, launched in 2013, enables graduates of Maryland community colleges to earn a bachelor’s degree at UMUC for a total cost of about $20,000—including the cost of the community college degree! To date, more than 3,700 scholarships have been awarded under this program.
Similarly, we are in the process of developing a three-way partnership with Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools and Prince George’s Community College that will pave the way for high-achieving students to earn a bachelor’s degree for a total cost of $10,000 or less!
And, in 2016, we completed our transition from costly publisher textbooks to primarily open educational resources (OERs), saving students an estimated $17 million in the first full year alone.
Some will surely disagree with our strategies, but I believe we can all agree that, within higher education, we dare not continue down a path that mortgages our students’ futures as we balance our budgets by increasing student debt loads.
It is time to think differently, rely on data and empower leaders to reimagine how best to serve our students. At UMUC, this has meant finding new solutions to the challenges of adult higher education in the 21st century—and ultimately, creating a new way to fulfill our public mission.
Javier Miyares is president of the University of Maryland University College.