Today’s higher education conversations often center on “access.” With the recognition that most contemporary careers require a college education comes the responsibility for institutions to provide that education to a rapidly diversified population. That means that colleges and universities must reach beyond the traditional elite: high-achieving, recent high school graduates who have the means to relocate, pay high tuition costs, and dedicate at least four years of their adult lives to full-time college. But today’s career-seekers are exponentially more diverse than the careers they seek. Among them are men and women with families, world-travelers, trained active servicemen desiring promotions or second careers, or veterans looking to continue or change careers as civilians. Traditional higher education institutions often lose students to these factors and many others over which they have no control, so that “access” to education that leads to careers is often defined by much narrower concepts than potential students need. More specialized careers require even more limitations on higher education offerings.
Embry-Riddle, which trained aviators in Ohio and Florida since before World War II, saw this issue before it even came into common focus. By opening its first campus at Fort Rucker Army Base in 1970, Embry-Riddle Worldwide was born. Seeking to address the first of these “access” needs: that of providing access to mobile military servicemen who want a Bachelor’s degree but are often relocated around the globe, the Worldwide campus began partnering with military bases to establish campuses. Already known as the world’s premier aviation and aerospace university, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University followed its students’ needs into traditional campus establishments in Daytona Beach, FL, and Prescott, AZ.
The precedent caught on like wildfire. From its start, according to current Embry-Riddle Worldwide Chancellor, John R. Watret, PhD., the institution took its aviation-centered specialty to more of the locations its students needed it by starting off as a mash-up of traditional on-campus instruction and correspondence courses. With the development of the Internet in the 1990s, Embry-Riddle began offering video classroom lectures, and eventually served as one of the pioneers of today’s online college experiences by providing expanded immersive online learning. In 1999, the Worldwide campus offered its first fully online programs.
The advancement didn’t stop there and has since expanded its offerings online and into more than 135 locations around the world. Recognizing that its aviation and aerospace students often have untraditional needs, Embry-Riddle’s trends have been student-driven since its beginning. Dr. Watret explains that “advancements in technology have resulted in a shift in student preferences. By 2016, some 88 percent of all students enrolled in Worldwide programs were completing their studies online only.”
Driving forces for Embry-Riddle’s innovation have been industry partnerships, access for military service-persons, and a focus on aviation-centered economies. While the same quality of education and degrees are offered at all campuses, including Worldwide, some programs, such as flight training, occur on the Daytona and Prescott residential campuses. Watret emphasizes the university’s tenets, that “flexibility, affordability, and quality are important to military men and women as well as many other students seeking higher education.” By having such a specialized global reach, the combined campuses of Embry-Riddle were able to award almost 5,000 degrees to students in 2018.
The university’s approach has not gone unnoticed by the most respected rankings. This year, U.S. News & World Reports ranked Worldwide the number one online program overall, and the number one online bachelor’s program for military veterans for the fourth consecutive year.
Watret credits Embry-Riddle’s success in part to a low student-faculty ratio and proven learning approaches that keep students engaged and help them succeed. Effective technologies that reach across geographic lines, yet continue to provide an effective, high-quality education for diverse individual students’ needs include online programs ranging from personalized orientation, advising, and progress maps to virtual aerial robotics and aircraft crash labs. Since its launch in 2017, the Embry-Riddle Worldwide Retention, Affinity and Persistence (WRAP) initiative has increased new student matriculation rates by over 10% and retention rates by 17%.
Worldwide campus locations include 89 military bases, which goes back to the university’s core student base: active and veteran military. Recognition of who its students are has always been a large part of developing the university’s approach. Watret says that the university “recognizes that military service provides invaluable skills such as self-discipline, communication, and a respect for safety. That translates well into the aviation and aerospace industry,” helping to make Embry-Riddle almost synonymous with degrees in the field.
Embry-Riddle Worldwide is currently headquartered in Volusia County, where the institution employs approximately 250 people, with $17.5 million in salary and benefits. Including other support staff across 17 locations in Florida, a “2016 study found that the university’s total economic impact on Volusia County at that time was at least $1 billion annually,” according to Watret.
Looking forward, the university continues to pursue mutually beneficial partnerships that help its students shape the industry they are poised to lead. Industry partnerships include the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy, aimed at transitioning veterans into technology careers. Another partnership with Flight Works Alabama will soon offer educational programs there as part of an agreement with Airbus. And following growing aviation trends has helped to establish Worldwide locations in markets such as South Africa, Brazil, and Singapore.
The university’s expansive reach is not lost on Watret. “What makes this so rewarding,” he claims, “is the positive impact we are making in the industry through our alumni. When our students graduate with an Embry-Riddle degree, they are prepared to enter into the workforce with the skills necessary to contribute to the growth and development of this evolving industry.” Reaching around the world to shape the educations of students ready and willing to contribute to this growth is a large part of Embry-Riddle’s design for success.