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GVSU Omni addresses work/life challenges while adult learners pursue degrees and certificates advancing careers

Earlier this year, Grand Valley State University unveiled a new statewide, hybrid delivery model designed to meet adult learners where they live. WGVU spoke with Kara Van Dam, Chief Executive of GVSU Omni.

Kara Van Dam: When I came to Grand Valley three years ago, I was really charged with helping us think about how to serve in particular working adults across the state of Michigan and beyond. And one of the things that I very quickly noticed was a real asset was our regional campus network. Obviously, there've been some challenges with COVID and the like, but I really saw that GVSU had the potential. with our existing presence and an ability to build a larger presence, and a potential to have a real presence across the state. And that's really important because a lot of Michiganders live in a four-year public education deserts. So only 12 of our 83 counties are home to a public four-year institution. Over half, 50 out of our 83 counties do not have an in-district community college. And as I looked at our footprint in Detroit, in Holland and Traverse City, it seemed to me that we had an opportunity to reach adult learners in particular, but also just people in those communities through that way. And so, I've really spent the last three years building out that regional network. We also have a location in Battle Creek and Jackson, and there's more to come really in community partnerships so that we can bring a GVSU education to learners across the state who today don’t have the ability to relocate to West Michigan and our main campus. And so that's sort of the initial seed for GVSU Omni, and Omni is Latin ‘for all.’ And so, it really is GVSU for all. And so, in leveraging our regional campus network, this allows us to bring the learning that students need to where they live. And sometimes that is going to be an online program, right? And sometimes that is going to be a hybrid or a face-to-face or an online program with face-to-face services and support. But we know from a recent national survey that even those learners who need an online program for you know, balancing work and life. Even those who need an online program, 76% of them will only do so with an institution within 100 miles of their house. And with our existing network, we are within 100 miles of every Michigander in the lower peninsula or 97% of the population. And the need is big. You know, half of Michigan adults, 2.5 million Michigan adults, don't have a post-secondary credential. That's 49.5% of our population, despite that still being the surest way out. of poverty. So really GVSU Omni became sort of all of these things. How do we leverage our regional network? How do we bring education to where Michiganders live so that we can extend that option of a Grand Valley education to Michiganders across the state in the formats that they need? And that can be full degree, it can be a short form badge, it could be a non-credit training, all of the above. Omni is for all, it's all of the above.

Patrick Center: Having that brick-and-mortar presence, for lack of a better term, is that what sets this program apart from others? Because there is a universe of these types of programs across the country. Is that what makes it different is having that close proximity and having that hybrid model?

Kara Van Dam: Yes, absolutely. I think that is the difference. And so, there are many institutions, and I came, I've worked for years at institutions such as University of Maryland Global Campus and Purdue Global, where the approach has been just stand-up high quality, but online programs, really lean into that online programming space. And what we're finding, and I think that COVID really reinforced this, is that for a particular segment of working adults, yes, they need the convenience of online, but they're really missing the human connections. And so, through our regional network, we have that human connection, we have that physical footprint all over the state. And the big national competitors, they don't. That's not the model. And even within Michigan, what we're seeing is many institutions that had regional campuses have really closed those down and moved back to their main campus. And I think over-rely on just having online offerings. I think that misses some of the wraparound support surfaces and the human relationships. And I'm a huge believer in online programs. I've spent over 20 years building online and hybrid programs. I know that academically they work. But I think that what is powerful about this is we're leaning into community. We're partnering in community across the state to align offerings to those local labor market demands local demographics and really grounding this in relationship. And I think that really is different.

Patrick Center: What are today's realities when it comes to the adult learner and the employer? What are each seeking in this post pandemic world that we live in?

Kara Van Dam: You know, so I think that maybe that hasn't changed so much. I think that from an employer perspective, the goal has always been to have new talent coming in, certainly graduates coming in that have really a full set of skills. They have the career or technical skills that they need to do a particular role and a function, but they also want those richer professional skills like the ability to communicate clearly, good interpersonal communication, ethical decision making, all of those wraparound services. And so, I think if anything what the pandemic has really underscored is some of those, some people call them soft skills, I like to call them professional people skills, right? So that is still in the mix, but they also want a more direct pathway for people to get the more technical or workplace-oriented skill-oriented skill set. And so, one of the other features of GVSU Omni is we really think about degrees in terms of stackability, right? And so, someone might start off just getting a badge in something and that might be enough for a particular role. It might be enough for an advancement, but maybe they need to go on or they want to go on and they want to convert that badge, keep going, and now it's a certificate. And now they want to keep going and that certificate can become a degree. And so, what we are hearing from employers is we need talent quickly. We understand that talent develops over a lifetime. We understand that skills scaffold. And so, we're hearing from employers that it is really helpful to have some of these shorter form credentials that people can then build on. The other thing I would say is we've had a lot of success at Grand Valley doing many aspects of this and many programs like this but not at scale. And that's what Omni gets us, really the pathway to take some of these things that we've done with singular employers or in a single community or in a single degree program and really amplify that effect across the state.

Patrick Center: You are developing GVSU Omni. You also have to market this. So, for anybody listening who is an adult learner and is intrigued, how do you sell this? What is the cost? What is the benefit for them?

Kara Van Dam: Absolutely. So, this is bringing a GVSU education to you where you are with local support with ties to community. We are partnering very deeply with community colleges across the state with other community organizations and so we know that working adults often you know you have housing that you can't give up right you have a job that you can't give up. And so, this creates the pathway to pursue that education that wasn't in your community right there. And I think that's the power. I also think that, you know, when we look at what an education can do, education is the surest path out of poverty towards middle-class economic stability. And so, creating that pathway for more Michiganders to advance in their career, I think is very powerful.

Patrick Center: Kara Van Dam, GVSU Omni, thank you so much.

Kara Van Dam: Thank you.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.