Working to be ‘better with,’ not ‘better than’

Mark Milliron, a longtime innovator in adult education and now president of National University, sees a future in greater collaboration across higher education. We talked with him about that idea, the rise of hybrid learning, and more.

As higher education has been hemorrhaging enrollment, online education has been a rare bright spot. But an increasing number of signs suggest the market is getting saturated.

Many more institutions offer online programs today, either on their own or through online program managers, than they did even five years ago. And quality has steadily improved. The market is maturing, Andy Morgan, senior vice president of corporate development and strategy at 2U, told a group of reporters last week.

“We’re seeing dramatically increased competitive intensity,” he says.

It’s against that backdrop that Mark Milliron, a longtime innovator in adult education, takes over as president of National University. With a heavy emphasis on online programs, the nonprofit institution largely serves working adults, community college transfer students, and military members. Its enrollment of 41,000 students, according to university data, makes National a substantial player in that market.

We talked with Milliron, who was a senior vice president and executive dean at Western Governors University before joining NU, about how much more room there is for national online institutions to grow—along with how the lines between online and in-person education are increasingly blurring as hybrid approaches grow.

How much room is there for nationally-focused, primarily online universities, particularly given the growth and strengths of WGU and SNHU?
Mark Milliron

I’m a big believer in catalyzing “better with” conversations rather than “better than.” The committed folks across our sectors often get pulled into trying to one up each other. The fact is most students stay within a regional education ecosystem. We should celebrate and support our school districts, independent schools, community colleges, independent colleges, universities, and workforce training initiatives. Put simply, our world is better with all these players doing amazing work.

National scale universities like WGU, SNHU, and NU should be good players and partners in these regions, usually providing connections for working students and students at different times along their education journeys. For example, we love serving early-college students in high schools, transfer students coming from community colleges, recent college grads going into our law school, or MS students finally advancing for that cybersecurity doctorate while deployed in the military. This isn’t a zero-sum game. If we open our aperture to the real need beyond right-from-high school students, there is a lot of work to be done out there and it’ll be better taken on together.

How does the university collaborate with community colleges?

A: We love working with our community college partners—they are conspirers in common cause. NU has a 50-year successful track record partnering closely with community colleges, which are the pathway to possibility for so many diverse and first-generation students. We strive to put in place incentives for rising students to “finish to go further,” meaning complete that certification or degree at the community college and then continue and complete with us. Clearly defined pathways really help, as does solid scholarship support that rewards completion.

In addition, NU has particularly strong masters and doctoral programs, including law. So we can help our community college partners with both faculty development and leadership preparation. Working together with our community college colleagues, we can envision next-generation leadership that can shape and support access, success, and equity innovation on the road ahead.

When Amazon picked the NU as one of its four national partners for the Career Choice program, I wondered about the potential for hybrid programs. Could that be part of the mix for this partnership, or the university’s collaboration with other employers?

A: Could not agree more. We’re all trying to figure out hybrid working environments. We better start really thinking through hybrid learning environments too—and not just those focused on classes. We at NU call it the “CoLearning” space innovation. Even if they’re in fully online classes, many learners need a safe place to learn, high-speed internet, just-in-time academic support (and tech support), childcare, and a place to connect—a place to belong.

That last one means more than you think. Stay tuned for more on how we’ll be changing how we use our own facilities to power these possibilities and partner with community colleges as well.

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