UMUC studies ideas for restructuring amid steep enrollment declines


Customer service representatives at one of UMUC’s two call centers in Largo, Md., work with students from the nation’s largest public online university. UMUC is studying restructuring ideas amid steep enrollment declines. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/For The Washington Post)

University of Maryland University College, the nation’s largest online public university, is weighing ideas to restructure its operations in response to steep enrollment declines in a hotly competitive market.

One idea announced Thursday would convert UMUC to a “not-for-profit public business entity with defined ties” to the University System of Maryland. Exactly what that would entail is unclear, but the goal would be to grant the institution more autonomy. It is currently a full-fledged public school within the state system.

The proposal, posted on a UMUC Web site, came from an advisory group that the school’s president, Javier Miyares, organized, but Miyares has not endorsed the idea. Any restructuring would need the approval of the system’s Board of Regents and, depending on the scope, possibly the state legislature.

William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the state university system, said that UMUC “will remain public” and part of the system. But Kirwan said he is sympathetic to UMUC’s desire to become a more nimble player in a national and global online market.

“In the world they’re competing in, we need to be sensitive to their needs,” Kirwan said.

UMUC, founded in 1947 as a continuing-studies branch of the University of Maryland, became independent in 1970 and is based in Adelphi. It serves U.S. military personnel and their families overseas as well as a large domestic market. Lately, it has expanded into such specialties as cybersecurity education.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, UMUC estimates it served 84,000 students worldwide. That was down about 10 percent from the previous fiscal year. Military cutbacks have led to a plunge in overseas enrollment, and domestic enrollment has slumped, too, as the online education market matures. In the fall, there were 39,557 students, down 6 percent from the previous year.

Among public universities, analysts say, UMUC has more online enrollment than such competitors as Penn State World Campus, Arizona State and U­Mass Online.

But Miyares said that UMUC, which laid off about 70 U.S. employees recently, must figure out how to resume and sustain growth.

“We have to solve the short-term enrollment problem no matter what,” Miyares said.

Long term, he said, the university must reckon with structural questions as it competes with for-profit companies and private, nonprofit schools that do not face the same constraints as state agencies.

For instance, public-records laws leave the state school open to scrutiny from competitors. “I would like to protect most of the things we do here from prying eyes,” Miyares said. But that goal appears to conflict with staying in the state system.

Miyares ruled out any effort to turn the university into a for-profit business, saying the school embraces its public mission.

“There are very clear advantages to being part of the University System of Maryland,” he said. “Our brand is very important to us.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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