Focus and Higher Education

WMU joins the snowbirds

University flies through checkpoint for establishing a Florida aviation and health care base.

October 16, 2015
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Western Michigan planes
The aviation industry is expected to need 38,050 new airplanes over the next 20 years, and WMU officials want to make sure students are prepared to meet the needs for pilots and maintenance personnel. Courtesy Western Michigan University

Western Michigan University officials are supporting an out-of-state expansion after voting to move forward with a provisional licensing process.

WMU board members voted earlier this month to authorize the university to move forward with establishing a physical presence in southwest Florida.

The approval will allow the administration to petition the Florida Board of Education for a provisional license to expand to Charlotte Harbor, which is in close proximity to the Punta Gorda Airport in Charlotte County.

The expansion would not only address market demands for aviation education but also provide additional opportunities for health and human services students.

Dawn Gaymer, associate provost for Extended University Programs at WMU, said during the meeting that the Florida initiative is about how the Extended University Programs unit can add value to the university through innovation, outreach and access.

“It is about how do we match the resources of our institution up with the needs of communities, and we focus on delivering programs with a scalable infrastructure,” said Gaymer. “This is a real opportunity to help us differentiate based on research and our nationally recognized programs.”

Extended University Programs focuses on providing educational and professional development opportunities beyond the university’s main campus. It provides academic programs online and at eight regional locations in Michigan, and is a self-funded business entity operating on generated revenue rather than state appropriations.

WMU’s initiative in the Punta Gorda area would provide an opportunity for the College of Aviation to expand to a location with a climate conducive for daily flight training and address market opportunities and demands.

“We are a national leader in aviation education,” said Gaymer. “Given the fact the state of Florida does not have a public university offering an aviation program, there is significant opportunity for us to expand to Florida and help to support the aviation program back in Battle Creek, Michigan, and connect the two.”

After conducting market research, assessing WMU’s current out-of-state student population, and recognizing the lack of market permeation in the southern region of the United States, Gaymer said the Florida presence presents a significant opportunity for the university.

“I have been doing this work for about 25 years and I have never seen a greater demand than what we have for the aviation market, both nationally and internationally,” said Gaymer.

The 2015 Boeing Pilot and Technical Outlook anticipates a global need of nearly 558,000 commercial airline pilots and 609,000 maintenance technicians to meet the industry’s growth. North America’s regional growth results in a need for approximately 95,000 new pilots and nearly 113,000 technicians by 2034.

Cheryl Roland, executive director of university relations at WMU, indicated in a written statement the College of Aviation has been looking for some time for a location in which to expand its flight training to meet demand.

“We have a vibrant set of aviation programs in Battle Creek that continues to grow,” said Roland.

WMU’s College of Aviation would partner with Florida Southwestern State College’s Charlotte Campus in Punta Gorda located within a mile of the airport, with WMU providing a flight-training program, while FSSC offers an aircraft maintenance training program.

“After meeting with President (John) Dunn, (FSSC’s) district president has really just completely rolled out the red carpet for Western Michigan University and sees us as a really significant partner for their future,” said Gaymer.

A physical presence in Florida also would support continued growth in the College of Health and Human Services by providing additional health care settings for its clinical rotations.

“We have built relationships with the hospitals in the region. We have a number of students who are currently on the ground in this region in their physician assistant clinical rotations,” said Gaymer.

To determine whether or not to expand WMU to a new community — particularly in a new state, Gaymer said the university reviewed several factors.

“We looked at several different positioning factors,” said Gaymer. “We felt there is a compelling interest for aviation in the state of Florida; we have a large alumni base of more than 3,000 in this tri-county area; 75 percent of the Florida population is within 150 miles of the location; and there is a significant capacity for clinical rotations.”

Gaymer indicated another important component is knowing who the university can collaborate with to help support WMU’s brand and serve as a catalyst for growing in the community.

“The biggest catalyst for us is WMU Cooley moved to Tampa before the affiliation. … They have been a great partner in helping us think through this initiative. We have corporate connections in the area. We have an airport that has been completely rebuilt that wants to invest in our programs.”

The Gulf Coast Conservancy and an estuary foundation also have expressed interest in WMU’s science and water research capacity for the region, according to Gaymer. 

WMU representatives will work with area community leaders, higher education and economic development officials later this month. The College of Aviation has a goal to enroll students in the southwest Florida location by fall 2017, according to Roland.

Based on extensive market research, community needs and WMU’s delivery capacity, additional programs could be recommended for the Florida location.

With the establishment of the location in Punta Gorda, Gaymer indicated the plan is to increase enrollment by approximately 1,500 students by the year 2021, have a revenue contribution to the university reaching $12 million, increase research and strengthen donor relations.

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