Distance Ed's New Market -- in Spanish

December 19, 2006

Reynaldo Pol, a coordinator of English as a second language courses for adults in a suburban Atlanta county, knows first-hand what issues language instructors in his corner of the world face. When he decided it was time to go back to school, Pol, a Cuban by birth who grew up in Puerto Rico and received his bachelor’s degree at Georgia’s Piedmont College, decided he wanted to look more broadly, beyond borders.

An online master’s program in teaching Spanish for non-Spanish speakers at the Universidad de León, in Spain seemed to fit the bill. One of about 25 master’s, 60 continuing education and two Ph.D. programs offered through a decade-old, Barcelona-based international alliance that set up shop in the United States in February, the program offered the dose of global vision Pol was seeking.

“This is a new, evolving field. This program specifically gives you a global perspective,” Pol said. For instance, he said, like in the United States, where Spanish instructors combat the influence of “Spanglish” on more formal study of the language, in Uruguay, teachers have to deal with “Portuñol,” a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish. “I never would have known that unless I spoke with a teacher that is based out of Uruguay.”

“They’re in my class. I have an opportunity to interact with them and learn from their experiences. I would not get that in the States.”

FUNIBER – the Fundación Universitaria Iberoamericana – is a nonprofit alliance of about 50 universities in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Latin America that serves as the middleman for students seeking advanced distance education degrees at Spanish, Italian or Portuguese-speaking institutions abroad. A U.S. office opened in New York this year with the initial three-pronged goal of setting up operations, including a call center, reaching out to the booming Spanish-speaking population in the United States and establishing partnerships with Hispanic organizations. So far, about 170 Spanish speakers in the United States have signed up for degree or certificate programs through FUNIBER at its member institutions abroad. Meanwhile, the alliance is finalizing an agreement to provide scholarships for the study of health fields with the nation’s preeminent Hispanic advocacy organization, the National Council of La Raza, this week.

“We want the Spanish and Portuguese speakers to keep going, to advance professionally and to have a higher impact on their communities and their societies,” said Sergio Abramovich, managing director of United States operations for FUNIBER. “That’s where we are different; that’s what makes us who we are.”

Because FUNIBER is nonprofit, it turns over its profits in the form of scholarships for students. The alliance, which is not degree-granting in itself, negotiates an individualized fee with each member institution for providing marketing, customer service, technology and payment services, and uses its profits, along with international corporate donations, to make education more affordable. About 60 percent of students are on a scholarship through the alliance to cover up to 30 percent of tuition for the programs, which range in cost from about $5,000 to $11,000 for master’s degrees and $1,500 to $4,000 for certificate programs. Scholarships are based on need and the projected benefit a recipient's studies would bring to the Hispanic population, Abramovich said. “What we want to know is what you’re going to do with this diploma when you get it, how are you going to impact your community.”

For instance, the nearly finalized agreement with La Raza will provide scholarship funds for Hispanic health educators who enroll through FUNIBER in health programs at member universities including, for instance, a master’s program in nutrition, or a certificate program in diabetes prevention, said Liany Arroyo, director of the Institute for Hispanic Health at the National Council of La Raza. The mostly volunteer health educators offer basic health information at a grassroots level to Spanish-speaking communities,  Arroyo said. “We do training for lay health workers, but there are other trainings that we don’t do. This is going to offer an opportunity for lay health workers, as well as other staff, to take part in a lower-cost option for continuing their education.”

FUNIBER, which has 7,000 students worldwide and 25,000 graduates, Abramovich said, offers degrees and certificates in topics including health and nutrition, sports, information technology, environmental studies, education and business. Programs are mostly open admissions, assuming a student has the qualifications to enroll (i.e. a bachelor’s degree to enroll in master’s programs, sufficient Spanish ability and, except in special cases, a background in education for programs in Spanish instruction, or status as a registered nurse or physician to enroll in certain health programs). The role of FUNIBER, said Abramovich, is to connect the resources of its member universities to students worldwide while removing the barriers that would inhibit institutions from establishing presences abroad to attract and enroll students.

The member institutions include the Universidad de León in Spain, the Universidad de Santiago de Chile and the Universidad de Guadalajara in Mexico. The members, most of which are public and only a handful of which are for-profit, are well-recognized in their respective countries, Abramovich said. The two institutions in Puerto Rico, “the bridge” for FUNIBER between the United States and the Spanish-speaking world, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Puerto Rico and the Universidad de Puerto Rico, are both accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

The alliance has not yet established any partnerships with institutions of higher education in the United States, Abramovich said, but will work on realizing that goal in the coming year. As to whether the alliance will ever offer degrees in English, it's an open question, he said.

The market for Spanish-language degrees in the United States is growing, said Álvaro Romo, associate vice president for programs, services and international affairs for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Some domestic institutions, including the for-profit University of Phoenix, have made inroads in the Spanish-language market, as have international universities that have expanded their efforts here, such as the Mexican-based Technológico de Monterrey.

“It’s an expanding market,” Romo said. “That’s for sure.”

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