The EvoLLLution | Online and On Base: Penn State World Campus’s Partnership with the Marines
By launching a physical classroom onsite in San Diego, Penn State World Campus is expanding its footprint, strengthening its already significant ties with the military and positioning itself for further expansion and growth.

In March, Penn State University announced that it would open a classroom starting in fall 2015 at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in San Diego, CA. This is the university’s first classroom on a military base, and it was made possible through a partnership between the Marine Corps and the university. The classes (which are now underway) are hosted in a dedicated Penn State classroom onsite at MCRD by Penn State’s online campus, Penn State World Campus. This article outlines some of the challenges and opportunities that have come with the partnership.

 Why did Penn State partner with the MCRD in San Diego?

We were interested in having a physical presence in southern California, and the Marine Corps was looking for a major research university to join the schools they already had there, which were San Diego City College, National University and Columbia College of Missouri.

Penn State has a large number of alumni in California and World Campus has a large number of students there. It’s also the state with the largest number of military installations, personnel and veterans, and San Diego, which is home to the Pacific Fleet, has the second largest veteran population in the state. The San Diego area also has one of the largest concentrations of military installations in the country, including Naval Base San Diego, Naval Amphibious Base Coronado and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

The confluence of those factors—a huge military and veteran presence and a large number of Penn State alumni and World Campus students—made San Diego very attractive to us.

In 2013 we attended the Council of College & Military Educators Annual Professional Development Symposium in San Diego. I reached out to several education service officers to say, “We’re thinking about becoming an on-base school somewhere in California. Would you be willing to sit down and help us understand the process?” MCRD San Diego responded saying, “Sure, but we’d also like to invite you be an on-base school on our installation.”

To get that kind of invitation is really an honor. Think of all the schools out there—and only a handful are on base.

Even though MCRD is a small installation and the Marines are a small branch of the military, the fact that it’s right in San Diego, right by the airport with easy access to public transportation, and the added factor that civilians can also take classes on base, is a big plus.

We’ve been able to do a lot of outreach through education fairs and community and military events such as the MCRD Boot Camp Challenge and the Miramar Air Show to build awareness of World Campus in southern California.

Why did the military want to partner with Penn State?

Penn State has a long history of working with military and a longstanding relationship with the Department of Defense. We have commissioned over 7,000 officers through our ROTC programs since 1916. After World War II we welcomed veterans and made a lot of accommodations for them. During the Vietnam War some schools dropped their ROTC programs—we didn’t. We’re also one of the top schools receiving military research funding.

We’re the only Big Ten school that both is in a state with a major military and veteran population—Pennsylvania has one of the country’s largest National Guards—and has a very robust online portfolio. Some 1,900 veterans are enrolled at Penn State through World Campus, and 900 are enrolled at our University Park campus.

The online portfolio is convenient and flexible for veterans, many of whom started with us part time when they were on active duty. A lot of returning veterans might be working full time and going to school part time. Many of them have families, and some of them are coming back with disabilities. They need a network of support close to home, and online education provides that option.

We’re definitely becoming known for serving the military and veteran populations. This year U.S. News and World Report awarded Penn State World Campus its top ranking for having the best online bachelor’s programs for veterans. This audience puts a lot of value in those rankings.

What challenges had to be overcome to get this idea from concept to reality?

From that initial conversation to a signed Memorandum of Understanding took exactly two years. We didn’t think it would take that long. But when you’re dealing with two large bureaucracies—Penn State and the military—things take longer.

The Marine Corps is a division of the Navy, which owns the base. So we were dealing with the Navy about the physical facilities and the Marines about the educational side of things.

This was something Penn State had never done before, so that also added to the timeline.

We’ve had contract programs, such as the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy Fellowship Program, but never a physical presence on a military base. That’s a whole different animal with a whole other set of requirements and regulations.

There were delays on both sides.

Another challenge was hiring contractors and carrying out renovations to the classroom from afar. Fortunately we had staff on the ground who were able to help.

Were there any accreditation challenges that needed to be addressed to host credit-bearing Penn State World Campus classes in California?

Penn State submitted the new site to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education for approval as an “other instructional site.”

 What have you learned from this experience? How might Penn State expand this to offer more classes at military bases across the country?

 One thing that has turned out to be a great complement to our program is the fact that San Diego has a very strong alumni chapter. We have partnered very closely with them through this entire process, co-sponsoring events such as golf tournaments and football tailgates. The chapter even has a designated World Campus scholarship. We also now have business development staff in San Diego, which also contributes to our awareness development efforts in the region. It’s proving to be a good model.

For us, the biggest opportunity is not specifically the classroom, but in having staff physically located in the region, including having an outreach director and admissions counselor who are able to assist students with the admissions process and making decisions.

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Readers Comments

Johanna Lane 2015/10/08 at 3:22 pm

It seems the most successful expansions start small in an area where the institution has solid grounding, rather than attempting to start something big just because it aligns with the latest educational trends. Penn State has clearly been building toward this for decades and so are well prepared for the challenges.

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