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Agile Education: At USF the future lies in upskilling and corporate training

Megan Holmes



Marshall Student Center fountain, Marshall Center fountain, bulls fountain

Meeting the demands of business requires innovative thinking from educators – agility is now the rarity factor that sets the bar. In our series Agile Education, we’ve explored some of the ways bay area educators and employers are keeping up with the speed and the requirements of the new economy. 

Part 8 in a series.

In spring 2018, Governor Rick Scott signed the Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act of 2018. This state law requires each of the campuses of the USF system – Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota-Manatee – to come together under one accreditation.

As consolidation chugs slowly on, the faculty of the three campuses are charged with the colossal effort of interweaving major and minor programs, removing discrepancies in curriculum and merging the duplicated efforts of many campuses into one.

So is the case for the undergraduate leadership programs. The USF Office of Corporate Training (Tampa campus) and the Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership (St. Petersburg campus), and their sister program in Sarasota are in the process of merging into one program and into their new home on the St. Petersburg campus, housed alongside the Open Partnership Education Network (OPEN).

Instead of fighting the pressures of consolidation to restructure and revamp programming, the two leaders of these departments, Mark Koulianos (Tampa) and David O’Neill (St. Petersburg) are viewing the consolidation not as a threat, but an opportunity.

The face of higher education is constantly changing, and as consolidations efforts speed up and the cultural conversation around four-year degrees shifts, Koulianos and O’Neill are fully aware that programming must follow suit. “It’s pretty clear that academic minors have to grow or evolve in order to survive,” said O’Neill.

The St. Petersburg campus, built into the urban landscape at the center of the Innovation District, is the perfect place to spark this evolution. “There’s just a lot of opportunity with all of the innovation and things that are going on here in the St. Pete area that we want to be a part of,” said Koulianos.

On its own, the Office of Corporate Training’s success has been self-evident. In just three years, it has grown into a $2.5 – 3 million dollar enterprise. Now USF provost Dr. Ralph Wilcox wants the program to grow to $30 million. “He really sees this as the future of education,” said Koulianos. “So not only are we consolidating campuses, but he wants to get more into the noncredit space of corporate training and lifelong learning.”

These are not your grandparents’ lifelong learning programs, synonymous with retirement. These programs are all about early and mid-career educational and vocational agility. “This is about people being able to upskill so as they’re pivoting in their careers, they have the skills they need to get to the next level in their career,” explained Koulianos.

“That’s the opportunity I see around this partnership,” O’Neill said. “It’s to look at the whole pipeline of leadership development from when they’re undergraduate students, and then they’re embedded in corporations throughout our community.”

Part and parcel to those changes, Koulianos said, is movement away from traditional degree-oriented programming and toward non-credit corporate training programs that are more in line with the needs of local employers. With corporate training programs, the university can engage in dialogue with employers to ensure their offerings align with talent needs.

One particularly successful example to emulate is USF St. Petersburg’s micro brewing program. According to Koulianos, these cohort-based, industry-specific programs tap into exactly the kind of talent pipeline feedback loop that universities need to help those industries grow.

“The future of education is going to go to this model of lifelong learning and upskilling,” said Koulianos. “People haven’t really figured out exactly how to do it, so for us to get together and work on this will hopefully bring about some sort of paradigm shift where USF can be leaders in this area, where we really start talking about building off your bachelor’s degree and what you’ll need to upskill.”

This agile model would reduce over-qualification and wasted resources, allowing both the university system and its students (or local professionals) to pivot based on their needs and the demands of the job.

O’Neill and Koulianos are anything but oblivious to the media backlash over student loan debt and a “one size fits all” model of four-year education – they know the problem isn’t going away. However, vocational training isn’t necessarily right for everyone either, Koulianos explained. “We think there’s something in between,” he said. 

“We can take applicable training, like an apprenticeship model, and combine it with higher education to make something that works. Where you can get something, you can start a career and you don’t have to be in debt.”

Click the arrow at the top of the page to hear David O’Neill and Mark Koulianos talk consolidation with St. Pete Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton.

Check back with the Catalyst for more updates as the consolidation effort continues.

Previous installments of the Catalyst #AgileEducation series can be found here.

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