A recent article in Inside Higher Ed indicates that UMUC, the largest public online university in the United States, is reporting record enrollments due to 5 primary reasons as described by the university’s president:
- Investment in Open Educational Resources
- Improvements to the student experience
- Targeted digital marketing
- More effective use of data analytics, and
- Introduction of new scholarship programs
A related press release issued by the institution indicates, using this specific wording:
“The 2017 summer and fall terms saw a stateside record high of 52,987 new and returning students”
It is important to understand what this number means and how it was calculated. In 2014, UMUC claimed similar fall semester record growth, but a subsequent audit by the state legislature discovered that:
“UMUC’s fall 2014 headcount enrollment grew nearly 20%, but this was due to a change in how such enrollment is counted.”
To UMUC’s credit, the institution is very open about publishing its institutional data in a tool called the Interactive Fact Finder. Using this tool, it is easy to query the institution’s yearly enrollment trends, including the most recent FY 2017. This data indicates that there were 62,503 total stateside students in FY 2017 – a number significantly more than the 52,987 described in the press release as the current record high.Delving into UMUC’s previous FY reporting, we actually see a very different story unfolding at the institution. Yes, the overall trend is that enrollments are growing, but the number of stateside students (ie: those residing in the US) by year is decreasing significantly and rapidly. The number of students in Asia and Europe, however, is growing at a rate fast enough to make up for this difference. The question arises – has UMUC begun targeting students in foreign geographies to sustain its growth? The answer is – kind of.
Universities periodically bid to deliver specific programs of study on US military bases in the US and abroad, often becoming the sole, exclusive provider of specific degrees and courses. By securing these contracts, other universities are prohibited from having a presence on base and from advertising competing programs to the same potential students in any way.
In 2013, UMUC won a Department of Defense contract to teach classes at military bases across Europe. According to the terms of this contract:
“The University of Maryland University College won a Department of Defense contract, expected to be worth $245 million over the next decade, to provide classes to troops on bases across Europe. UMUC also won the rights to offer M.B.A. degrees to overseas military personnel, a part of the contract previously held by the University of Phoenix…working with students enrolled in the University of Phoenix’s M.B.A. program…to make sure that the students can transfer to Maryland.”
“The Government intends to solicit only one source, University of Maryland University College.”
Capitalizing on the continued decline of the for-profit universities that have historically provided on-military-base instruction, by winning these contracts UMUC has secured the rights to be the default higher education provider for students at virtually all military bases in these regions, and rightly so because UMUC has earned an exceptional reputation and successful track record delivering exactly this type of instruction over the past 70 years.
The University’s recent 3-year Strategic Plan (page 17) indicates:
“Increased competition, dwindling funds for military education, and cuts to state and federal education support have all caused UMUC’s enrollments to fluctuate. It is clear that to continue to grow, UMUC must expand into a nonmilitary market”
This strategy is significantly disconnected from the reality of the university’s recent growth which doubles down on the university’s historical roots rather than exploring new markets. The items that the university’s president indicates as its reasons for recent success are all great accomplishments, but the real reason for the university’s recent success is that the university has shrewdly negotiated a business contract that makes it the default higher education provider for the US military in most of Europe and Asia.
This is a guest post authored by George Kroner