In 2008, John Immerwahr described an “iron triangle” constraining colleges and universities, in which cost, quality, and access exist in an “unbreakable reciprocal relationship, such that any change in one will inevitably impact the others.” According to this logic, making a college or university more accessible or trying to increase the quality of instruction would necessarily drive up institutional costs. Conversely, reducing expenditures would inevitably make an institution less accessible and undermine the quality of the education that a student could receive there.

For twenty years, the University of Central Florida (UCF), a public university of nearly 61,000 students in Orlando, has sought to break this iron triangle by reducing cost, improving quality, and enhancing access simultaneously. With a 144 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment, a graduation rate approaching 70 percent, close institutional attention to teaching and learning, and tuition and fees of just over $6,000 per year, it has arguably succeeded.

In a new Ithaka S+R case study, “Breaking the Iron Triangle at the University of Central Florida,” Jessie Brown and I describe two strategies UCF has employed to improve and scale instruction.

First, it has strategically developed its own resources—through satellite campuses, online instruction, and rigorous faculty development—to extend its internal instructional capacity. For the past twenty years, UCF has supplemented its network of physical campuses with a vast, virtual extension of its instructional reach through technology. Now, nearly 78 percent of all UCF students take online or hybrid courses and 38 percent of all credits are earned online. To ensure the quality of online and blended instruction, Online@UCF is grounded in a robust training and support program in instructional design.

Second, it has partnered with other institutions in the region to develop and integrate its external instructional capacity. Through DirectConnect to UCF, UCF guarantees admission to all associate’s degree graduates of Daytona State College, Eastern Florida State College, Lake-Sumter College, Valencia College, and Seminole State College. DirectConnect to UCF goes far beyond the admission guarantee, however: administrators, staff, and faculty at UCF and its partners have worked closely to improve and coordinate instruction and advising, as well. More than half of UCF students transferred there after earning an associate’s degree elsewhere, and the majority of those transfers are from DirectConnect to UCF partners.  The graduation rate of transfer students is virtually the same as that of students who start at UCF.

UCF’s efforts to break the iron triangle are notable for their emphasis on instructional quality and faculty development. This approach requires patience and long-term thinking.  It takes years to engage a critical mass of participating faculty, to build their capacity, and to see their efforts affect large numbers of students and bring more faculty into the fold. At the root of this transformation has been an attempt to change culture among its own faculty and staff and among those at its partner institutions. The gestation for this sort of change has been long, but the results are substantial and deeply engrained.