Fifty years on, Union Institute & University keeps quietly growing in Uptown

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati can boast of a university perched just north of downtown where undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees are offered. It's been around a long time, and its graduates include college presidents and even a prime minister.

It may sound like University of Cincinnati or Xavier, but the school is Union Institute & University, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, fortified by $500,000 in new scholarship grants pledged by Western & Southern Financial Group and the Helen Steiner Rice Fund.

Because of its unusual learning model, UIU doesn't garner the attention of UC or Xavier, or even Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. You won't find teen-agers and early twenty-somethings on the hard court trying to reach the NCAA basketball tournament.

In fact, you'll find few traditional college-age students at all.

That's because the not-for-profit university is and always has been a distance-learning center, conducting classes online now – and by other methods in the past – that has focused on adults.

"We developed the idea of online learning before there was the technology to support it," Associate Vice President Carolyn Krause said.

Students come from all walks of life, but the most common are single mothers returning to school after hard knocks or missteps got them off their education and career tracks. Minority representation is also much higher than at traditional campuses, with 47 percent of students being white, 23 percent African American and 20 percent Hispanic.

"She is 38, of color and/or with kids. She's involved with her church and social causes," Krause said of the most typical Union student. 

While it's headquartered on McMillan Street in Cincinnati, Union has satellite facilities near Miami, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Calif., and Brattleboro, Vt. Total enrollment is 1,640, including 306 students in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. It is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. 

Union formed in 1964 after 10 university presidents gathered to dream about the future of higher education, according to the school. They formed a consortium with two goals in mind:

• Create an alternative delivery model of higher education for adult students.
• Inform the field of higher education about what was learned in the process.

Fifty years and the school is still growing.

It offers more than a dozen bachelor's degrees, with many more concentrations; multiple master's degrees and doctorates in psychology, philosophy in interdisciplinary studies and education. In January, it added a new master's of science in organizational leadership, a 12-month online program.

So, with no students milling about campus, no sports teams or other organized extracurricular activities, it's hard to put a face on the university.

But one face is Ginny Ruehlmann Wiltse, who earned her doctorate in 2000 with a concentration in spirituality. She is now a Union board member.

She is a daughter of the late Eugene Ruehlmann, who served as Cincinnati mayor 1967-71. Western & Southern, established a $250,000 grant in his name last fall. The grant is provided to one Ph.D. student each year who is pursuing a doctoral dissertation project that "embodies Ruehlmann's guiding principles of cooperation, collaboration compromise, communication and community building," with the promise of significantly contributing to a community.

Wiltse's education was happily interrupted by her choice to focus on raising her three children. When she considered her options to complete her doctorate, the flexibility and proximity of Union's program proved most appealing.

"My program at Union was transformative to me," she said. "And it was the perfect place because it was flexible."

Union emphasizes the importance of service the community in its mission, and Wiltse said the doctorate she earned there helped. "I feel like I’m living my degree by the work that I do," she said. "The people who thrive at Union are predispositioned to use their degrees to do good in the world," she said.

Its graduates include Portia Simpson Miller, prime minister of Jamaica, who earned a B.A. in administration. Sojourner-Douglass College President Charles Simmons, Bethany College President Scott Miller and Thomas Edison College President George Pruitt are among the educational leaders who earned doctorates there.

"It definitely caters to people's busy lives," Krause said.

Like most universities, Union has experienced some headwinds since the 2008 recession, particularly with a dip in employer-sponsored scholarships for workers to earn an advanced degree. Despite those challenges, its surplus and enrollment are up slightly this school year, Krause said.

Its mission has shifted in recent years to send representatives out to businesses and organizations. Instructors hold classes at Colerain's police department, where officers pursue degrees of every level – some to qualify for a promotion, some to earn a bachelor's after work and sometimes military service delayed their pursuit.

Degrees aren't

cheap, with undergraduate degrees costing $490 an hour, master's costing between $500 and $778 an hour and doctorates costing up to $1,110 an hour.

But students cobble together financial aid and scholarship packages to make it work. Nearly 90 percent of undergraduates and doctoral candidates receive financial aid, and virtually all master's candidates do, according to the school.

Wiltse looks forward to the Ruehlmann scholarship continuing the mission.

"Union gave a template, an option for women who were underserved," she said.

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