Chief Human Resources Officer

Consumer-Driven Education: How Is UniversityNow Creating a Consumer-Like Experience for Students?

Eugene Wade, CEO of UniversityNow discussed UniversityNow’s new model for online education via its accredited university, Patten University, and how it can help educate and create a more productive and engaged workforce for companies.

Tim Skennion: What is the new educational model you are pursuing?

Eugene Wade: There’s been a lot of talk from the White House and Department of Education about moving away from what’s call the credit-hour rule. If you’ve gone to school in the last hundred years, you’ve probably encountered the credit-hour rule, which refers to the fact that students earn their course credits largely by sitting through classes and completing work on a timed schedule. Even online schools today are built around models that are timed and structured in the same way they were in a classroom. Unfortunately, this seat-time model of education is not flexible enough to meet the needs of many students today, who often have to balance work and family commitments with their educational goals. What we are trying to do is push the industry towards self-paced models where students can learn at their own pace and time. Our big innovation was around creating a more flexible model, supported by software and big data analytics that give students lots of feedback and support. So we have built a really consumer-driven and consumer-like experience for students in our universities.

What is the mission of UniversityNow?

Our mission is to make a high-quality college education available to people everywhere, and our goal is to make sure that all workers and working adults gain access to a great education, particularly the frontline workers who need more flexible and affordable educational solutions.

“Our big innovation was around creating a more flexible model, supported by software and big data analytics that give students lots of feedback and support. So we have built a really consumer-driven and consumer-like experience for students in our universities.”

You mentioned frontline workers as the greatest beneficiaries of UniversityNow and your programs. Who else does it affect?

It also affects managers; we run associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degree programs that have increased the skills and engagement of workers, and have also helped managers. It also impacts companies because it has a really positive ROI. Tuition assistance in general, and particularly programs like ours create a more productive workforce that tends to stay longer, contribute more to their organizations, and perform better once they’ve completed college vs. before they started. We changed the ROI calculation, so for the first time, workers can earn their college degrees for free (or for minimal cost out-of-pocket) using their tuition assistance, and companies can also save money and offer their employees the tremendous benefit of covering a college education that will improve their skills and value to the company through existing tuition assistance programs.

How does the model complement how the education market has evolved?

I think from an employer’s (and employee’s) perspective, the big difference is that Patten University is self-paced; students can start school any week (semesters start every Monday), and they can study for as well as take exams at times that are convenient for them. This means that you’re not putting working adults in a position where they’re choosing between school and their job (or family). The school/work conflict goes away because students have flexibility to schedule exams and work at a pace that suits them. That’s probably the biggest structural benefit that we’ve brought to the market, outside of fundamentally lowering the cost of delivering a quality accredited college degree.

The second is just feedback. We can give both students and employers a lot more information about what competencies and skills people have, because it moves beyond traditional grade reports, which don’t really tell you a lot about a person or what skills they know. It just says they got this grade in the class but you really don’t know what that translates to in terms of their actual competencies. We start with industry councils, comprised of employers in each field, who help us determine what skills and competencies they would like to see in students that they hire. We then map all of our degree programs, courses, and content to defined and measurable competencies, to ensure that graduates of Patten University have demonstrated mastery over the skills and knowledge that employers value in their program of interest and chosen fields of study.

“Our mission is to make a high-quality college education available to people everywhere, and our goal is to make sure that all workers and working adults gain access to a great education, particularly the frontline workers who need more flexible and affordable educational solutions.”

It sounds like the self-paced model removes one of the largest obstacles for a worker seeking secondary higher education: the choice between their job or their higher education. What has been the effect on talent development and retention from the employers’ standpoint?

From the employers’ standpoint, there is a couple of different benefits of these models in general, and ours in particular, the first being that you see productivity gains. There’s an interesting study I saw with a Fortune 15 employer where they were able to quantify that the students who participate in their tuition reimbursement programs become top-tier performers after completing college with their tuition assistance benefits.

The second benefit is that if it’s a really strong program and well-run and well-supported within the company, you see a lot of recruitment benefit from having a tuition or educational assistance benefit that supports self-paced online universities. A lot of workers are interested in these programs, and it represents a strategy and competitive edge for companies seeking to recruit talent, particularly in industries that have large frontline workforces (think retail, telecom, etc.), and prospective job seekers will apply for the job in part to get the tuition assistance benefit.

Yet another benefit is that the company can realize savings on retention. In the study I mentioned, the tuition assistance program actually paid for itself through reduced retention costs alone, because they’re saving when their workers are staying longer and not turning over.

What are Americans’ expectations out of education? Whether it’s taking advantage of a self-paced program like Patten University or a traditional model, what type of ROI is your typical American student looking for?

I think people today are doing what we call learn-to-earn, and most people today in college are working adults in some way, shape or form. They have a job, they’re working part-time and they’ve got a family. And they’re looking for their school to be relevant to the work world, to be a pathway to a job or to enable a step up in their career. So that’s the first expectation. I think people are also much more price sensitive as the cost of college has just gone through the roof. It’s outpaced healthcare in terms of annual increases, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s just not affordable for most people. So I think the consumer is a lot savvier about what kind of investment they make.

But what we’re saying to companies is that they should be really encouraging folks to consider and select programs where they get a quality education and are not having to go into enormous amounts of debts to do it. So that’s what we’re seeing in terms of expectations: people looking for value, people looking for new models that meet them where they are, quality programs that will help them get a job or a promotion, and an education that is relevant to the work world that they’re in.

How has UniversityNow partnered with employers and HR leaders? And what’s been the impact on their employees today?

Because of our flexible model and our cost structure, we’re able to offer students very affordable college tuition. In fact, the annual tuition assistance benefits that most companies offer is greater than the cost of our tuition. So we offer something that’s affordable and that provides students with the flexibility to meet them where they are and to support them in being successful, and mastering skills and competencies that their employers value.

BIO:

Eugene Wade
Gene Wade, CEO of UniversityNow, has spent most of his adult life as an education entrepreneur working to create greater access to high quality education. Prior to founding UniversityNow in 2010, he was Co-Founder and CEO of Platform Learning, a tutoring company that served tens of thousands of low-income students throughout the United States. He was also Co-Founder & CEO of LearnNow, a school management company that was sold to Edison Schools, where Gene became an Executive Vice President. Prior to becoming an education entrepreneur, Gene was a corporate bankruptcy attorney. Gene earned an MBA from The Wharton School, a J.D. from Harvard Law School and a B.A. from Morehouse College. As a serial education entrepreneur, Gene has been profiled by national business and education media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Dan Rather Reports. In 2011, Gene shared his personal story and vision for transforming higher education as a speaker at TEDx San Francisco’s Salon on Higher Education.

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