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University of Maryland University College has charted a unique path as a public institution in online education.

In the 1950s, UMUC began operating evening and weekend classes for working adults seeking degrees from the University of Maryland.

For Joe Cruz, a 10-year Army veteran who served in Iraq, and wife Maria Cruz,the path from his military career to civilian life has taken the young couple from Germany to Odenton, Md., where they reside and are starting online degree programs at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) this fall. Their affiliation with UMUC began a few years ago when Joe and Maria took classroom courses at a UMUC-Europe campus while he was stationed in Germany.

While working full time, Maria will begin an online master’s program in enviornmental management and Joe will start taking courses this fall to complete work on a bachelor’s degree in computer science. He also plans to pursue an online master’s degree in software engineering from UMUC.

“With me being eligible for the new GI Bill, this is the perfect time for us to get our education. The flexibility of the online classes will allow us to work while we study,” Joe Cruz says.

As one of 11 accredited institutions in the University System of Maryland, UMUC occupies a unique place in U.S. higher education as one of the largest standalone public institutions to offer online undergraduate and graduate education programs. The school, touting itself as the nation’s single largest public university based on combined classroom and online enrollments, enrolled more than 90,000 students globally last year, including 36,000 active duty service members from around the world. Out of 130 total undergraduate and graduate programs, 116 of them are available fully online, according to the university.

With for-profit entities, such as the University of Phoenix, having gained wide public recognition as online educators, UMUC has offered proof that an accredited standalone public institution can deliver the online experience many students seek. The school’s high-profile programs for overseas military service members as well as extensive marketing in the mid-Atlantic region have enabled UMUC to establish strong regional and international branding not unlike what the leading for-profit schools have accomplished nationally with aggressive marketing.

“University of Maryland University College is a separate unit in the Maryland system, but it’s been around for a very long time. And it’s a little bit like the University of Phoenix in that it was set up many years ago to cater to the adult education market,” says Dr. Frank Mayadas, the program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and an expert on U.S. higher education online programs.

Over the past decade, working adults like Joe and Maria Cruz have largely fueled the growth of what many consider the pioneer years for online education becoming a major component of U.S. higher education. Working Americans have steadily fl ocked to online courses and programs over the past decade, and it appears the trend shows no signs of slowing down in the near future. From 2002 to 2008, online education program enrollments increased from 425,575 to nearly 2 million students, according to data compiled by the Boston- based Eduventures Inc. research and consulting firm.

Online enrollments are expected to reach 3.5 million students by 2013, Eduventures reports. “The online degree market is by and large your nontraditional student — students 25 and older. With the realities of life as you get into your 20s and 30s — you’re looking to advance in your career, you have family obligations and you’re less mobile — online education has really succeeded in the convenience and fl exibility dimension,” says Dr. Gerald M. DiGiusto, research analyst for the Online Higher Education Learning Collaborative at Eduventures.

Says Mayadas, “(Online programs) start with the idea of ‘let’s aim at those who can’t make it to campus but would like to learn.’ That’s a good starting point. And when you say that then you’re automatically talking about working adults.”

Given that U.S. projections for online learning indicate steady growth for the near future, Mayadas says states and individual public institutions can stand to learn valuable lessons from UMUC. He cautions, however, that the school has benefi ted from structural elements that may be diffi cult or impossible for other institutions to replicate.

Following an Intriguing Path

Founded in 1947, UMUC was established to administer a U.S. Department of Defense contract to provide GI Bill education to soldiers stationed in Europe. In the 1950s, the school’s charge to educate U.S. soldiers expanded to include military personnel based in Asia. It also began operating the evening and weekend classes for working adults seeking degrees from the University of Maryland. In 1988, UMUC became a separate degree-granting institution within the University System of Maryland. By the late 1990s, online education was established as a new way to serve working adults and since then enrollments have grown rapidly. From 1998 to 2008, UMUC’s stateside enrollment increased 142 percent. The school’s overseas presence has grown to more than 100 classroom locations in 25 countries.

“For a long period of time UMUC had stateside programs, but its real thrust was working around the world with the military. Most of those enrollments were in traditional classroom settings on military bases and other locations,” says Dr. Bruce Chaloux, director of the Student Access and Programs and the Electronic Campus at the Southern Regional Education Board. “And over the last 10 to 15 years, they have very comfortably moved into an online environment.”

Dr. Nathaniel Calloway taught cost accounting to UMUC students during the summer of 1997, one of the fi rst online courses ever offered by the school. Calloway has been a UMUC faculty member and administrator since 1988.

 “We got going with online education when virtually no one had any experience with it. Both students and faculty members were new to it,” Calloway says.

Since the late 1990s, UMUC has won a number of regional and national awards recognizing the quality of its online programs. In 2006, UMUC’s Center for Teaching and Learning was awarded the Sloan Consortium Excellence in Faculty Development for Online Teaching award for its Teaching with WebTycho Training Course, and in 2005 UMUC’s master of business administration program won the prestigious Sloan Award for Most Outstanding Online Teaching and Learning Program.

Dr. Jennifer Thompson, an assistant dean for administration in the graduate school of management and technology, says UMUC administration and academic departments stay highly focused on the professional education needs of UMUC students as well as the evolving local work force trends in the mid-Atlantic region. She says the mid-Atlantic economy is a dynamic and rapidly changing one, partly refl ecting the presence of the federal government.

“We’re starting a master’s program in criminal justice managment this fall. There’s been a demand for better trained professionals in law enforcement because of increased state and federal government activity in this area. We listen closely to what people are saying about workforce needs,” Thompson says.

Online Education’s New Era

Despite the prospects for enrollment growth, not all public online education ventures have fared with consistent and steady growth as UMUC’s online programs. In May, the University of Illinois trustees voted to reorganize the system’s Global Campus initiative, a two-year-old online campus that had just 360 students enrolled this past spring. The trustees transferred administrative responsibility of the program to the University of Illinois campuses, abandoning the stand-alone structure that has allowed UMUC to thrive since 1988. The University of Illinois campuses each operate online degree programs of their own.

Dr. Nathaniel Calloway says UMUC began with online education when virtually no one had experience with it.

The Sloan Foundation’s Mayadas contends that new online ventures need the full backing of university systems and individual schools to have the credibility for becoming successful. UMUC is an exception because its history precedes that of the online era and it had established a reputation for accessible programs for working adults and military service members, he argues.

“In the past when they’ve tried these kinds of things they haven’t worked real well because they’re not really connected to the university. They’re just separate little projects. The Illinois Global Campus was not an integral part of any of the Illinois campuses; it was separate,” Mayadas says.

Other education experts say building brand new standalone institutions to accommodate online learners is unlikely to see much support coming from state legislatures given the current economy’s dismal state as well as the trend of diminished public higher education funding by states over the past decade.

With online programs at public fouryear institutions having often evolved out of continuing and professional education divisions, those programs have enabled public schools to respond to local workforce demands, says DiGiusto. This has been especially true of online education offered by community colleges. Their activity has given rise to state consortium organizations that aggregate online programs from several institutions under one administrative entity to simplify resident enrollment in online programs in a given state.

Mayadas, who has administered the Sloan Foundation’s funding of innovative higher education online programs since the early 1990s, says quality online education results when there’s strong institutional commitment to making online learning part of a school’s offerings.

“I have a good idea of what a good model is and that is to try and make online education an integral part of what the university does. Every department offers the courses that they feel they can, perhaps full degrees. And they need a central facility at the university that supports the faculty to develop these courses,” Mayadas says. “But it’s up to deans and department chairs to determine if they want to do it; I think they should and it should be part of what they do.”

Despite the mishmash of online programs offered by state schools either through direct enrollment or those provided through state online learning consortiums, analysts see a thriving sector of online education both in community colleges and public four-year institutions. According to Eduventures, public institutions enroll 53 percent of the students seeking online undergraduate and graduate degrees. For-profits and private nonprofits enroll 32 percent and 15 percent of online degree-seekers, respectively.

DiGiusto says public universities have the strength of their local reputation and unique academic communities on which they depend.

“The publics have also had random niche programs. In small fields that are built off of local industrial or faculty interests, they have these programs from which they’re able to increase and sustain enrollments online,” DiGiusto says. “They’re not scalable. But because they’re not as driven by the profi t margins they’re able to offer those programs and attract enrollments that way.”

Learning from UMUC

Russell Poulin, associate director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET), says that regional state institutions along with land grant research universities have been most active in developing online education programs.

“There’s not as many (public non-land, grant research universities) that are as involved in serving adults at a distance because they don’t see it as closely as part of their mission. And another part of it is that a lot of them are already overwhelmed with the numbers of students that are just coming to campus. They’re not seeking to grow or attract new students,” Poulin says.

He notes that in Colorado where the WCET organization is based the University of Colorado-Boulder, Colorado’s popular flagship university, offers little or no online program offerings. In contrast, the Colorado State University (CSU) system launched the CSU-Global Campus as a standalone institution in 2008 to provide online undergraduate and graduate programs for Colorado residents. Poulin warns the CSU-Global Campus, which earned accreditation late last year, could very well go the way of the Illinois initiative rather than that of UMUC if the new institution doesn’t connect strongly with adult learners.

States have grown concerned about making sure their two- and four-year public institutions are competitive in educating working adults, education analysts say. They have noted the successes that for-profit institutions have experienced in the online education market and seek similar results.

“I think (UMUC) has things to offer that all public institutions should take a good look at and see what they can learn,” Mayadas says. “Some of the things they do a good job of are advertising and recruiting. They have a lot of adjunct faculty; they recruit high quality adjunct faculty. They know a lot about student services. These are all things that should be studied.”

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