UTEP VP: Institutions should think strategically about online programming
In December, the University of Texas at El Paso announced UTEP Connect, a partnership with Pearson that will initially bring eight online baccalaureate, graduate, and certificate programs fully online when it launches in May. Estimated to expand access to an additional 5,000 students, the first eight programs are spread across the health, criminal justice, communication, and education fields.
For the 100-year-old emerging research university, which currently does around $83 million in funded research annually and wants to hit $100 million in the next five years, the programs are a big deal. Despite its size and reputation, UTEP is largely access-driven, with a 78-80% Hispanic student population. Simply put, itts students are traditionally non-traditional.
“We’re very excited about the launch of these programs," Michael Smith, vice provost for strategic academic initiatives, tells Education Dive. "We’re excited to be working with Pearson and we look forward to a successful group of initial programs and a long partnership with Pearson."
We caught up with Smith to learn more about how UTEP Connect came about, what it means for the institution, and why colleges and universities that don't yet have similar programs should be considering them.
EDUCATION DIVE: How did the partnership with Pearson for UTEP Connect come about?
MICHAEL SMITH: We began, I guess, discussing with several potential partners a couple of years ago the idea of developing a more extensive portfolio of online programs. Pearson was one of a number of potential partners we had discussions with, and as those discussions sort of matured and we got to know Pearson, it became clear to us that they were really the partner that we wanted to work with. I think that eventually they found the same to be true about us, and we ended up entering into an agreement earlier this year.
What are the biggest benefits of UTEP Connect for local students, particularly non-traditional students?
SMITH: That’s primarily our market: non-traditional students. Locally first, but then regionally and even nationally. I think the benefit is that, first of all, it’s an online education that people can access where they are and where they live, in a way that makes sense for their unique circumstances and their lifestyles — particularly if they’re working, which many of our online students and even face-to-face students do. That’s one big advantage. UTEP is a nationally known and respected institution. It’s been around for a long time and it’s known for the high-quality education it delivers, and also the access that it provides to underserved populations. I think that combination is an attractive one, particularly in the online marketplace.
There’s been talk lately that non-traditional students are the “new” traditional. What is the "traditional" make-up of UTEP's student body?
SMITH: As I said, UTEP has a very substantial non-traditional student population as it is. We draw most of our students currently from the El Paso region. Though UTEP has a very large and extensive campus and physical plant and sports programs, most of our students don’t live on campus. They live in the community and they come to campus every day. And that includes about 1,200 students who commute every day across the bridges from Mexico. A lot of those students currently are non-traditional, so this is a market UTEP is very much familiar with and serves right now.
How is the typical UTEP Connect program organized?
SMITH: The classes will all be taught fully online. They will be taught in seven-week short terms, six times a year, so students can take classes and move through a degree program year-round. They’re designed with the non-traditional or working student in mind, and they’re all asynchronous, so students don’t have to log on at a particular time. They can do the coursework at times that are convenient to them.
How often do you plan to add new programs?
SMITH: We’ve got five planned for next year, four for the year after that, and two for the year after that, and we may add additional ones as we go along.
What do you think are the biggest benefits that other institutions could get from adopting a similar program if they haven't already?
SMITH: Fully online programs are growing. I think the future of higher ed is largely going to involve non-traditional delivery — fully online or hybrid delivery. The whole industry is rapidly moving in that direction. Every university needs to pay attention to those trends and needs to think strategically about how online programming can be part of its suite of offerings.
UTEP has 78 different majors, many different graduate degrees, 20 doctoral degrees. We have lots and lots of face-to-face degree programs, and those are going to remain. They’re strong. Our enrollment has grown every year for the last 10 years. We don’t see those trends necessarily changing, but I think it’s to every university’s advantage to really explore the online marketplace. We’ve had a few online degrees that have developed over the years, primarily in nursing and a couple in education, but this is the first time that we’ve really jumped into this space in a strategic way and in a bigger way.
Do you think something like a MOOC would potentially be used to promote these types of programs?
SMITH: Potentially. We haven’t explored that route yet. We have had discussions about it, but that’s not something we’re pursuing right this moment. But we may in the future.
Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at what higher ed CIOs predict for campus tech in 2015.
Follow Roger Riddell on Twitter