Back in April, it seemed like a win-win deal.
The federal government, with a workforce that has grown increasingly dissatisfied with training opportunities, negotiated a first-of-its-kind program: A Maryland college that caters to non-traditional students online would grant a big tuition discount for all 2.2 million federal workers — 25 percent off all undergraduate courses and most graduate courses — plus their spouses and legal dependents.
The cash-strapped University of Maryland University College, which relies on tuition payments to stay afloat and had to lay off 70 workers this spring amid a $25 million revenue slump, would develop course work specifically to help federal employees advance in their careers.
But interest so far has been minimal, with only about 300 students nationwide signed up for online courses this summer.
Advocates for the new program are not daunted. They say they expect a big boost with a new marketing push expected to ramp up next week, with more ads in Metro stations, more radio spots, and a series of online open houses to solicit interest in this fall's programs.
"It's the beginning of something," said Patricia Delaney, an associate vice president at UMUC, who helped negotiate the deal with the Office of Personnel Management.
Sydney Smith-Heimbrock, OPM's deputy associate director for strategic workforce planning, said director Katherine Archuleta "has made a commitment to provide access to all federal employees to the education they need."
Smith-Heimbrock said OPM and UMUC have developed programs that will train human resources employees from a range of departments across the federal government. And OPM has begun training managers to learn about what UMUC can offer and pitch it to their employees.
If a worker needs specific cybersecurity training to get a promotion, for instance, UMUC has a course online designed to match government requirements.
The sweeping plan to train federal workers through UMUC was modeled after a deal struck three years ago between the college and the Department of Health and Human Services.
According to Delaney, the department had a high number of employees retiring and needed help making sure existing employees were qualified to step into their shoes.
The school developed curriculum to help workers in 32 different jobs, including health insurance specialists, human resource workers and financial managers.
If the UMUC program works as planned, Smith-Heimbrock said, the federal government will create similar deals with other online universities.
She said the fact that the discount extends to family members should help the government recruit workers.
"We want to demonstrate that we're really walking the talk of taking care of our people when they get here," she said.
Recent employee surveys suggest the federal government has some work to do in that regard.
Only 50 percent of workers are satisfied with training opportunities on the job, according to OPM's 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, and discontent is more prevalent among younger workers. Satisfaction with training overall has declined by six percentage points over the past three years.
An education specialist with the American Federation of Government Employees said the union welcomed the program, but would prefer the government focused on preserving pensions and investing in on-the-job training for workers.
"While educational advancement is really important to your career advancement, it is not a substitute for professional skills development in the workplace," Julie Mendez-deLeon said.
Mendez-DeLeon said AFGE members hope that the new program and its discounts will not be used to reduce tuition assistance programs and that managers will continue to understand that getting advanced education takes more than tuition help.
"Even if you overcome the money hurdle, you still need time," Mendez-deLeon said.
It's a balance that Nikki Cornette, 32, has been seeking since she first started course work with UMUC more than a decade ago.
Cornette began work in 2002 for what would eventually add up to an undergraduate degree in English from UMUC in May 2013. Along the way, the Army IT policy planner moved to three different U.S. cities and had two children.
Now, she says, she's got all the skills she needs to qualify for her next promotion at Fort Bragg, N.C. But for the one after that, she thinks she'll need a master's degree in IT management. She did a broad search, but ended up choosing UMUC for graduate school for its relationship with the federal government.
The 25 percent discount made the choice a slam-dunk, she said.
"I'll take any savings that I can get," Cornette said Wednesday, the day she completed her application to begin courses in the fall. "If I were going to go to another school, there would be no guarantee that the experience would be everything I need it to be."
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