The University of Florida will host one of the nation’s first fully online bachelor’s degree programs starting in January, providing a significantly lower-cost education while relieving the logjam of applications to the state’s pre-eminent university.
Online learning is already in place across the state system – the University of South Florida is No. 2 among the state’s 12 public universities with 6,525 students, or 21 percent of its full-time roster, enrolled in a distance learning class – but UF Online is the first program potentially taking incoming freshmen all the way to graduation without a classroom experience.
“UF Online is a game-changer for the delivery of public higher education in Florida and around the world,” said state House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican and champion of the legislation that mandated the online track. “Starting next semester, distance will no longer be a barrier to obtaining a world-class education from a state university in Florida.”
The program starts with five majors – business administration, criminology and law, environmental management, health education and behavior, and sports management. In June, biology and psychology will join the roster.
Within 10 years, UF expects to be serving more than 24,000 online students in 35 majors, bringing in $77 million in revenue to the school and $15 million in profit. A staff of roughly 250 will serve the online operation.
The university system’s Board of Governors approved UF Online’s business plan last week. UF marketers and recruiters are now spreading the word about the program.
The application deadline for the 2014 freshman class is Nov. 1. Prospective students must apply for UF Online or the traditional on-campus program; they cannot apply to both.
“Here, the option is going to be what we would describe as an excellent education with an outstanding faculty and content at an affordable price,” said W. Andrew McCollough, UF’s associate provost of teaching and technology.
As part of the legislative mandate, UF Online will charge in-state students no more than 75 percent of the going rate for on-campus resident tuition. That’s about $84 per credit hour, down from the $112 charged to on-campus students. Out-of-state students will pay market rate, which university officials have estimated at $400 to $500 per credit hour.
“When you look at the cost of higher education, particularly in Florida, tuition is a minor part of the total cost,” said McCollough. “Up here, normal tuition is on the order of $6,000 and the total cost of being in Gainesville is about $25,000 (a year). If I were the mom and dad, that would certainly be something for me to think about.”
Online education has been identified as one way to address accessibility at Florida public universities. UF, like many others, operates at full capacity and has kept the number of incoming freshmen steady at about 6,400 a year. More than 29,000 applied for admission.
“Many students have the academic skills to get into the University of Florida but haven’t been able to attend, either because we don’t have enough space on campus or because their life circumstances prevent them from leaving home,” UF President Bernie Machen said. “This online undergraduate initiative removes both of those roadblocks.”
While UF Online’s business plan passed unanimously, several members of the board of governors expressed concerns. Alan Levine, a UF alum and former aide to Gov. Jeb Bush and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, wondered if the online component would “dilute” student success metrics.
Joe Glover, UF’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said the university is “fully committed to maintaining the quality of educational programs.” He said the university would adhere to its strict admissions standards.
McCollough, meanwhile, acknowledged that in some areas, missing out on work in laboratory or clinical settings was a “major challenge.” However, he noted that the university has 12 research and education centers scattered around the state that could fill the bill, or the university could establish a summer on-campus lab-only component.
“We are not hesitant to engage these types of curricula,” McCollough said. “We will find solutions to the lab needs. We will not water down the curriculum.”
Most state universities have offered online degree programs, but primarily for graduate students, professional certification or in the “2+2” arrangement. Students in 2+2 take the first two years of classes at a university or college setting before finishing online.
Last school year, USF in Tampa had 26 fully online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and 46 graduate certification programs.