University of Maryland University College (UMUC) was established with a bold goal more than 70 years ago: to bring knowledge to adult learners. After teaching generations of Maryland families and the U.S. military around the world, the pioneer in online education is launching a campaign to carry its reputation—and more than 90 academic programs—to the Philadelphia market.
Beginning June 4, the university will launch a media blitz in Philadelphia, blanketing city buses and billboards with advertisements and peppering the airwaves with commercials. At the venerated 30th Street Station, Philadelphia’s historic transportation hub, UMUC messages will be on full display, accompanied by a new logo bearing the Maryland state colors—gold, red and black—and a tagline: State University. Global Campus.
By rolling out a welcome mat to Philadelphia, UMUC aims to expand its enrollment beyond Maryland students and members of the military, its mainstays for the last seven decades.
“Our mission is to provide affordable, accessible, quality education to adults in the workforce and the military,” said UMUC President Javier Miyares. “Because we deliver instruction online, our model is one in which scalability is key. But we have reached a saturation point now and need to go outside the DMV [D.C.-Maryland-Virginia] market.”
Historically, the military has always been a critical component of UMUC’s enrollment, and active-duty servicemembers, veterans and their families currently make up more than half of UMUC’s enrollment worldwide. However, Erika Orris, UMUC’s chief enrollment and marketing officer, said that market has also topped out.
She underscored that the Philadelphia foray is part of a larger strategy to boost enrollment—and, in turn, revenue—in order to keep UMUC tuition low, allowing the university to meet its affordability goals. UMUC currently offers the second lowest tuition and fees in the University System of Maryland.
“Our students can complete an MBA or master’s in cybersecurity or data analytics for less than $25,000—in state or out-of-state—and they can complete it in 18 months if they do one class every term,” Orris said. UMUC’s undergraduate degrees are under $60,000 for out-of-state students, less than many other schools. UMUC also has many scholarships, both for in-state and out-of-state students to help make education affordable.
A 2017 study by the nonprofit College Board, which tracks trends in higher education, projected that tuition and fees for colleges and universities would continue to rise across the country, even after adjusting for inflation. The study also noted that financial aid has not kept pace. In March, the Federal Reserve reported that student debt in the United States had tripled to more than $1.3 billion between 2001 and 2016.
With its unique mission, UMUC has no research component from which to draw funding, a very limited endowment and it receives modest state support. The bulk of its operating revenue comes from tuition.
UMUC earlier launched two for-profit enterprises to generate revenue as a buffer to rising tuition. HelioCampus provides data analytics services to other universities while AccelerEd offers technology services. Both fall under the umbrella of UMUC Ventures, a university holding entity created less than two years ago to help build an endowment to keep tuition low for UMUC students.
Orris said changes in UMUC’s business operations come on the heels of a close examination of enrollment trends, student retention and graduation rates. The shifts also consider how UMUC can build to scale. Expanding enrollment in online education does not require additional brick-and-mortar investment and, as a result, can be scaled-up quickly.
That said, technology has made it easy for other universities to enter the adult-education market, and UMUC now finds itself on an increasingly crowded field of competitors. It has not advertised or engaged in promotion beyond its home market. The challenge will be to distinguish itself from the pack.
An innovator when it was founded, UMUC has prided itself on being in the vanguard. It was a pioneer, for example, when it shifted its adult-education know-how to the internet in the mid-1990s. Today about 85 percent of its courses are fully online or hybrid, with the remainder taught on military bases around the world. However, all UMUC’s 90-plus programs can be completed online.
UMUC has also drawn positive national news headlines for its student-friendly initiatives. In 2016, the university eliminated publisher textbooks in most courses, replacing them with Open Educational Resources, or educational materials in the public domain. It currently is redesigning its academic programs to put greater emphasis on experiential learning in which students focus on real-life projects rather than theoretical ones.
Even the enrollment process is geared to the needs of adult students. UMUC does not require SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT or other entrance exams, and it has rolling enrollment windows. As many as 90 undergraduate credits may be transferred from other educational institutions and, especially in the case of servicemembers, limited credit can be granted via prior-learning assessments.
UMUC also has established alliances with 96 companies, including GEICO, MedStar Health and the global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, as well as a first-of-its-kind agreement forged in 2014 with the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, to help build the skills of employees through discounted tuition programs.
In Philadelphia, both mainstream and digital marketing will be tapped to tout the benefits of a UMUC degree.
“If we do our job right, when [potential students] come across us, they’ll learn that we’ve been teaching adult learners since 1947, that we went online in the mid-90s, that we are reputable and that we are part of a state university system,” Miyares said.
The president added that UMUC offers other powerful benefits to potential students. It focuses on academic programs that match labor-market needs and most faculty members are practitioners in their fields, making them more likely to teach against real scenarios rather than theoretical ones. Miyares said the scholar-practitioner faculty model is a plus in building practical skills that students can transfer to their workplaces.
“Most of our students have families, children, and they are very clear on what they want. They want to get ahead. And that means expanding their skill sets,” Miyares said. “We offer them a product that is solid, strong, successful and has a track record.”
Orris said market research had identified Philadelphia as a metropolitan area where there is demand for an affordable online education.
“University of Maryland University College was created solely for the purpose of educating the busy professionals, the working moms and dads, our military and our veterans,” said Orris. “We can benefit adults beyond the Maryland border, helping them further their education or prepare for a career change or move up the career ladder.”
Miyares is fond of saying that the once “nontraditional student” has now become the traditional student thanks to online education. More than 80 percent of UMUC’s stateside undergraduates have jobs; 75 percent of them work full time. The average undergraduate is 30 years old, and most UMUC students are working parents. Minority students constitute 46 percent of the total enrollment.
“We are inclusive and accessible,” Miyares said. “At the end of the day, this [strategy shift] is all about what UMUC needs to do to keep tuition affordable and education quality high.”