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Online Initiative Boosts Access and Differentiation in a Competitive Marketplace

The EvoLLLution | Online Initiative Boosts Access and Differentiation in a Competitive Marketplace
A new online initiative at the University of Colorado aims to meet growing student demand for online programming while creating access to high-quality postsecondary education for location-bound learners.

Higher education institutions today are under immense pressure to improve access, provide high-quality educational programming and services, and to ensure that students earn a credential and succeed in their career of choice. This is a tall order and many colleges and universities are looking for new ways to serve students. The University of Colorado recently introduced their Connect initiative, a range of high-quality online programs offered for those seeking certificates, undergraduate and graduate-level degrees across a range of specific subject areas. In this interview, Pam Shockley-Zalabak discusses the reasoning behind going this route and shares her thoughts on how Connect will help the University of Colorado remain competitive over the long run.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What have been a few of the most significant changes to the higher education landscape over the past 10 years that led you and your team to develop University of Colorado Connect?

Pam Shockley-Zalabak (PSZ): There have been many changes in higher ed over the last 10 years. The most significant change, particularly in the public sector, has been the shift to individuals funding most of their education as contrasted to public funding from state for public institutions.

The change in the financial model plus the need for an increasingly educated workforce has created some really interesting dynamics in the public marketplace. People are looking for programs that are of high quality and that they can complete as they are working full time. They are looking for things that allow for flexibility that still retain quality. That in and of itself—combined with the characteristics of our current students and their coming of age in a digital world—created a need for us to think about how we create those quality courses and programs that permit more flexibility and also speak to the people who are coming to us today who are highly digitally engaged.

Those aspects combined with a host of other factors—access to our programs for people who live in rural areas of our state, for example—all contributed to us deciding to do University of Colorado Connect.

Evo: Why is it so important for public universities to be proactive about keeping pace with industry changes, especially in today’s environment with declining state appropriations?

PSZ: Public universities provide the vast majority of the workforce in this country, in terms of the jobs that require some type of postsecondary education. It really is in our overall mission.

That is not to say that private institutions do not do an excellent job of contributing to the workforce. There will be institutions that meet the needs but in terms of the sheer numbers, it’s the public institutions. If we don’t step up to meet these needs, they will not be met.

Evo: What were a few of the market changes that led to the introduction of the University of Colorado Connect?

PSZ: One of the market changes is the 18-year-olds who come to our campuses opt to take online as well as in-class work. A second market change is the 24- to 35-year-old age group is finding a need for a degree and they are returning or coming into higher education in record numbers. Full-time working individuals often need a different level of flexibility than traditional-aged students, not less rigor in the courses. They want to be connected to quality institutions but they need a greater degree of flexibility.

Evo: Did you find that you were losing a level of market share because of the lack of access to online courses because of this changing student demographic?

PSZ: I wouldn’t say it’s a response to declining market share because we have actually grown during this time period. However, we have seen the value of creating online in the questions people ask when they’re looking at our programs and in other institutions across the country who are also engaging in an assessment of how online education can be part of their portfolio of offerings.

Critically, when we look at the pocket of our state and other states where there are fewer educated citizens and where access is more of an issue, we see that online education is the future.

We’re not looking at growing our online presence from a “losing market share” perspective. It’s more a matter of assessing the changing needs of the demographic and trying to be ahead of that. We would lose market share if we did not address these issues.

Evo: Are you looking at ways to better engage with students to better scale your support services to match the increasing number of students that are going to be coming through the door through the Connect program?

PSZ: Absolutely—one would be very foolish to not scale support services or to not scale the availability to meet the individual student needs.

That support scaling is in design right now and I don’t know what the end state of that will look like, but obviously it will have a technology infrastructure. It’s also going to have a human high-touch base as well. Trying to put those two goals together is certainly not impossible but it does take some real planning, some design and some thought in how to address that.

Evo: How do you and your colleagues expect the University of Colorado Connect to support the university’s competitiveness and growth?

PSZ: University of Colorado Connect will support competitiveness and growth through a fundamental commitment to quality. You’re going to have regular University of Colorado faculty engaged in this effort and we will use experts as well. We are going to have a commitment to this that ties us to the quality people have come to expect from our on-campus offerings. It will give us more flexibility in when courses can be offered, which also permits growth in campuses.

It’s also going to give us a different level of access. I’m not talking about access simply for people who live hundreds of miles of way, but for people who have different circumstances—single parents, older students. Making these offerings available will make us more attractive in the marketplace because they’re designed to meet needs that are very distinctly in our market.

In general it better serves Colorado because we’re a state with enormous beauty and enormous challenges. We will be competitive, but it’s going to be competitive with really high quality.

This interview has been edited for length.

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