The University of Maryland University College, which has been struggling with declining enrollment, is considering severing some ties with the state university system to avoid burdensome regulations and work more closely with the private sector.
Under the proposal, the university would become an independent nonprofit organization that retains an affiliation with the state system. The school's president, Javier Miyares, said during a Thursday town hall meeting in Largo that the idea came from a task force of experts organized by the university as a response to a shrinking student body.
UMUC, a mainly online institution, has struggled with a competitive online education market and a smaller military. Members of the military or their families make up about half of the college's students.
The main objective of the proposal is to more readily secure partnerships with the private sector, including working with companies to make courses more employer-friendly and building relationships to help students secure jobs. Miyares said such partnerships can be challenging to forge as a state agency.
"This way we would not be bound by all the regulations and statutes that apply to a public state agency," Miyares said.
University officials also hope the move would help it attract more students outside the United States, though it would retain the University of Maryland name. Based in Adelphi, UMUC offers courses to students in 24 countries.
The plan would allow the university to keep ties with the 12-institution University System of Maryland, but the details have not been worked out. "The validity and credibility you get by being part of the University of Maryland system is huge," Miyares said.
No immediate action will be taken on the task force recommendation, as the school begins a process of soliciting feedback from the college community. University officials said there are few concrete ideas on how the effort would be implemented at this stage; Miyares said he wanted to get input first.
UMUC has the support of the University System of Maryland to look into alternate business models.
"The university is facing some significant challenges," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the system. "They are appropriately addressing those challenges."
Kirwan said a more concrete proposal would need approval from the system's Board of Regents before implementation, and possibly the governor and General Assembly. The governor's office declined to comment on the plan.
But some higher education experts expressed concern about the university putting out such a proposal with few details.
Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said it's not uncommon for public universities to form private-sector relationships to outsource certain functions, but it's unclear what the change in status would mean for the university.
"Honestly, I don't know what to make of this," he said. "The decision to operate under a different set of rules is interesting. Whether the move is good, I don't know."
UMUC has been struggling with declining enrollment both stateside and overseas since fall of 2011. Although the rate of decline stateside has remained less than 10 percent in the past three years, overseas enrollment declined 20 percent for spring 2014.
The school has struggled to increase enrollment because of competition from traditional academic institutions that have started offering Web-based classes and popular massive open online courses known as MOOCs, university officials said.
A shrinking military, which is facing large-scale budget cuts, also is a factor in loss of enrollment.
University officials said that 90 percent of its budget comes from tuition and 10 percent from the state. Other colleges in the university system get about 30 percent of their budgets from the state.
"We don't know what the future is going to be like," Miyares said. "But if we don't adapt, we will go into a death spiral."
UMUC's struggles are "a reflection of how competitive online education has become," Kirwan said. "What we do need is to explore if operational flexibility is possible."
"UMUC has been quite unique in the university system," Nassirian said. "It had been mostly self-sufficient because it provides excess revenue back to the system, but that [online] business model has not fared well as of late."
Traditionally, changes in business models for colleges have occurred when a struggling nonprofit university becomes a for-profit venture after a large corporation acquires it. Nassirian gave the example of the Clinton, Iowa-based school Ashford University being purchased by Bridgepoint Education.
Miyares said the change could occur as early as next summer. Academic programs and staffing levels are not expected to be affected if the model changes, unless enrollment continues to drop.
The school laid off 70 staff members from departments at the Adelphi and Largo campuses earlier this year, and 58 the year prior. The university employs about 2,000 in the U.S.
"The whole goal is to get enrollment up," Miyares said. "If enrollment is fine, there should be no dramatic difference to the academic side. This is a pivotal moment in our history."