War on Multiple Fronts

The University of Maryland University College needs to change to stay alive. But so far the university can only agree on what it doesn’t want to change into.

September 8, 2014
Map of UMUC locations in Europe

The University of Maryland University College is used to serving members of the military. Now, the university is fighting a war for survival on multiple fronts.

The university’s dilemma: It needs to grow its enrollment by 5 to 7 percent a year to avoid tuition hikes. Yet for the past two fiscal years, fewer students have enrolled at the university, whose worldwide headcount has sunk to 84,801 -- its lowest since 2006.

To reverse this trend, UMUC, once a pioneering flagship institution for adult and distance learners, can no longer be an institution that primarily attracts Maryland residents and members of the military. But administrators and faculty members are wondering how to expand without straying too far from the university's mission, which states the institution “shall ... [p]rovide the citizens of Maryland with affordable, open access to higher education.”

Javier Miyares, president of the university, this year assembled a group of entrepreneurs and members of the Board of Visitors to recommend a new business model for the institution. The team, known as the Ideation Group, this summer delivered a bleak report about the future of the university.

The university’s enrollment has “risen with the tide,” according to a summary of that report, but the tide is now receding. The university is being squeezed by competitors in the U.S. and overseas, and the federal government’s actions -- and sometimes inaction -- have made going to college a confusing and complicated process for many of its students.

As a result, the report concludes, “UMUC is no longer well-positioned for long term sustainability in this new environment.”

A 'Perfect Storm' Abroad

Abroad, the university’s presence is shrinking. Students connected to the military, including active personnel, reserve forces, veterans and their family members, make up about half of UMUC’s total enrollment. At one point, UMUC enrolled over 55,000 such students.

The university normally enrolls between 20,000 to 29,000 students in Europe, but this year, that number is 16,387, dipping below 20,000 for the first time since before 2000. In Asia, enrollments have dropped to 11,471, down from a peak of 22,457 in 2004. (Those numbers, like the worldwide headcount, are preliminary.)

“The ice is melting under our feet, and it’s happening at a time that we’ve lost market share to other institutions,” Miyares said. “Last year, we lost 20 to 25 percent of our enrollment in Europe -- similarly in Asia. As of today, in Europe, we are running 10 percent behind last year.... In Asia, the decline continues in the 20s.”

Members of the UMUC community sometimes describe the development as a “perfect storm.” The military drawdown around the world has shrunk the pool of potential students by tens of thousands. Military education benefits, temporarily suspended during the recent federal budget crisis, now come with more requirements and restrictions. And earlier this decade, the American Public University System, which operates the American Military University and the American Public University, surpassed UMUC as the largest provider of higher education to members of the military, even though the two charge the same for tuition.

"We were always number one,” Miyares said. “I don’t have to tell you that the market share they ate was a lot from us.”

Even as the APUS has dethroned UMUC, it has done so not by growing, but by shrinking more slowly.

“Frankly, everyone’s numbers are dropping overseas, not just theirs,” said Jim Sweizer, APUS’s vice president of military, veterans and community college outreach. “We were very close in 2010, but we’ve widened the game in the neighborhood of 25,000 students. We’re not growing per se, but we’re not declining as much as our competitors in the military.”

Sweizer suggested UMUC has attempted to maintain its face-to-face operations at military bases, which he and others described as a “logistical nightmare,” at a time when the university should have focused on online education.

UMUC is not abandoning its hard-won contracts to teach at military installations abroad, but the university is restructuring those efforts.

Up until the mid-2000s, Miyares said, the university’s Asia, Europe and U.S. divisions functioned as “de facto” campuses, with overlapping course offerings and administrative services, and student information systems that didn’t talk to one another. Those services are now being centralized in Maryland, eliminating the need for anyone but advisers at the sites abroad.

UMUC was also lax in restricting its faculty -- most of them on one-year contracts -- to no more than four years overseas. Some stayed for decades, Miyares said. In South Korea, for example, some faculty members retired after “30-some years.”

In early 2013, Miyares traveled overseas to explain the restructuring process to administrators and faculty members. His message: “Many of you will be losing your jobs.”

Faculty members had 18 months to consider their next move: Either take a severance package worth one month’s pay per year of employment (but with the stipulation that they would be ineligible to work for the university for three years), or, beginning in 2015, compete for traveling faculty positions -- a nomadic existence that has instructors travel to wherever a sizable group of students are interested in a particular course.

This summer, Stars and Stripes reported, the institution cut the number of faculty in Europe from 104 to 53.

“We have been very clear that we gave everybody a choice,” Miyares said. “Either you take the lump sum, or next year, you will have to compete for the available traveling faculty positions -- but there will be no more residential faculty.

“This was painful for many of our faculty, and I fully understand that,” he added. “These are decisions that, if they were not hard, it means you have lost your soul, but if you can’t make them, you need to step down.”

‘We Can Only Speculate’

As the university restructures abroad, the faculty there -- who only serve in an advisory role -- say they have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation.

“The Ideation Group and other advisers point out that the success of an organization is enhanced when the organization provides an environment where the best employees feel valued and encouraged to stay, as their loss would be detrimental to the organization’s operations,” a group of faculty members in Asia wrote in an anonymous letter last month. “[The university’s] plan is in complete contradiction to this fundamental business model.”

A traveling faculty model might make sense in Europe, where faculty members can easily move between Germany and Italy, for example, but the faculty members questioned the plan’s benefits in Asia. Moving faculty from place to place would likely mean increased housing allowances, travel expenditures and training costs, they wrote.

Frank Concilus, who serves as the at-large member for the Faculty Advisory Council, said rotating faculty between military installations could help expose students in a particular major to a variety of teachers. Over the last several years, however, the number of upper-level courses he teaches has declined, and 80 to 90 percent of his course load now consists of introductory courses.

“Why should the speech and writing teachers in Okinawa come to Korea while the speech and writing teachers in Korea go to Okinawa?” Concilus said. “Why play musical chairs with people teaching the same classes?”

Asked if he would consider applying to become a traveling faculty member 40 years after he first taught at UMUC, Concilus said “I’ve been forced to imagine it.”

Without an explanation, faculty members such as Margaret L. Cohen, chair of the Faculty Advisory Council, are coming up with their own theories behind the restructuring.

“We can only speculate,” Cohen said. “If I had to theorize about it: What they wanted is to get rid of most of the people who have been with UMUC for decades.... They want people without theories, without connections, without roots, without institutional knowledge.”

The plans raise questions about age discrimination, Cohen said. For example, the original application for the new faculty positions instructed applicants to include references to their dissertation and graduate directors, but “in order for me to get in touch with my graduate director, I’d need a seance,” she said. The application was later updated, Cohen said. A university spokesman did not respond to a request to confirm.

“Some of us believe that this ‘perfect storm’ was information for many, many years and didn’t just hit us,” Cohen said. “Some of us think that the management hasn’t handled it properly.”

Requests for comment sent to certain other members of the Faculty Advisory Council bounced back as the email addresses no longer exist.

Adult Learners, Mature Market

Miyares returned from the trip overseas only to be met by the effects of sequestration, which caused some military branches to cap tuition assistance and, months later, led to the federal government shutdown. Despite a bipartisan compromise to restore funding for the tuition assistance programs, Miyares said “the writing was on the wall” after a tumultuous 2013.

“I feel like I’m just a step ahead of the wolves coming,” he said. “We are just inches away from them.”

If overseas enrollments are being affected by factors beyond UMUC's control, a logical way to counteract the decline may be to target adult learners not affiliated with the military beyond Maryland's borders.

"I love Maryland, but it’s a very small state," Miyares said. "It’s not California. It’s not New York. There is only so much you can get out of Maryland."

But UMUC can’t simply recoup its losses abroad by aggressive expansion at home. The distance education market is more crowded than ever; UMUC is no longer just fighting for-profit universities over adult learners, but also the many nonprofit institutions -- from Southern New Hampshire University to the University of Arkansas -- that are attaching their brands to online ventures.

“The mature market is here,” Miyares said. “There is almost no growth online. If that’s not a red flag, I don’t know what is.”

Kenneth E. Hartman, who once competed against UMUC as president of Drexel University Online, said Miyares is “spot on with his comments.”

“The problem is the student market is flat at best,” Hartman, a senior fellow with the consulting firm Eduventures, said. “Smart colleges are beginning to focus on what they should have been focusing on a long time ago, which is the quality of the product.”

UMUC has a number of such projects in the works, but apart from a push throughout the University System of Maryland to use open educational resources, which will be embedded in every course by the fall of 2016, many are still in the pilot stage. The university is exploring the use of predictive analytics with Civitas Learning, and is running a small-scale pilot with competency-based learning in the spring.

The Ideation Group suggested UMUC doesn’t find itself at a crossroads, but a busy intersection. Among its proposed business models, the group listed becoming the online arm of another public institution in Maryland, operating as a state agency or selling itself to a competitor. It recommended the university become a nonprofit public business entity, maintaining “defined ties” to the university system but freeing itself from the “constraints of state agency.”

Miyares said it is too early for him to endorse any recommendation. He has, however, eliminated some of the proposals.

“Under my presidency, UMUC will not become a for-profit institution -- period,” he said. “UMUC will continue to have its public mission as adopted by the General Assembly years ago of being the open university in Maryland. I also want UMUC to be part of the University System of Maryland family. But within that, there are many issues.”

Throughout the month of September, the hundreds of people who have commented on the “UMUC Future” website will be invited to attend focus groups. Their input will be summarized into its own report -- as will feedback from alumni, faculty and students -- and in October, Miyares will recommend “what I think is best for the university” to the board.

“I truly can tell you today I don’t know what I will recommend,” Miyares said. “I don’t think I will recommend ‘do nothing,’ but ... when I look into the future, the problem is nobody knows what will be the problems that UMUC will face five years from now, nor the opportunities that UMUC can seize.”


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