Arizona's Online Holdout
The University of Arizona, the last holdout in a state investing heavily in distance education for undergraduates, will this fall join the state’s other public universities in offering online bachelor’s degrees, as UA Online opens its virtual doors.
UA's in-state competitors -- Arizona State and Northern Arizona University -- have already established themselves in that market. Arizona State, for example, has made flashy announcements with Starbucks and massive open online course provider edX to grow its online enrollment, while Northern Arizona University offers dozens of online certificates and degrees and has become known as an early adopter of competency-based education.
UA, for its entry into the market, plans to emphasize its status as a land-grant and research institution to set itself apart from online education providers inside and outside the state.
“I don’t personally spend a lot of time thinking about other institutions in relation to this,” said Vincent J. Del Casino, vice provost for digital learning and student engagement. “We, for a long time, have each carved out various spaces of the student learning market in the state and beyond. We see the same thing in online education -- that there’s an opportunity for what the University of Arizona has.”
Del Casino and university spokesperson Chris Sigurdson emphasized the university’s most popular programs -- particularly in STEM fields -- and growing minority population as factors that will guide how it expands its online offerings. Last academic year, more than half of the bachelor’s degrees the university awarded went to graduates in science, social and behavioral sciences, and management. The university’s minority population, as a share of the total enrollment, has also more than tripled in the last three decades.
“We need to speak a bit more loudly about those successes at the national stage,” Del Casino acknowledged.
UA is responding to a challenge issued by the Arizona Board of Regents to the Arizona University System to increase its capacity by 2020. Reaching the “gold standard” target outlined in 2020 Vision, a plan created to boost educational attainment in the state, would require Arizona’s three public universities to find room for nearly 60,000 additional students -- largely through the expansion of online education and transfer pathways.
UA expects to contribute about 7,000 online students to the 2020 goal. By fall 2016, the university projects it will be nearly halfway to reaching that goal, though its online undergraduate population is only expected to total 7-800 students.
“In addition, the system would have to deliver academic programs by every means possible, to every corner of the state, and to students of all ages -- this without reducing the value of an Arizona university diploma,” the report reads.
Karen L. Pedersen, the Arizona-based chief knowledge officer of the Online Learning Consortium, said UA’s announcement adds to what she described as “exciting times” for online education in the state. While she recommended that UA should be mindful that some of its more research-focused faculty may have less experience with online education, Pedersen said she didn’t anticipate its status as a land-grant university would present any distinct challenges.
On the contrary, Pedersen said, the university may have an advantage based on the degrees it offers and faculty experts at its disposal. “Whether it’s a nutrition program or something in agriculture, land-grant universities are going to bring potentially unique programs to the market,” she said.
UA is by no means the first land-grant institution to offer online bachelor’s degrees. That list already includes Pennsylvania State University, the University of Georgia and the University of Florida, to mention only a few.
Craig Weidemann, vice provost for online education at Penn State, said going online has given the university an opportunity to reach new students.
"The emergence of new online pedagogies and analytics has enabled Penn State to realize the promise of the land-grant mission in a very different manner than the face-to-face instruction historically delivered through our campuses," Weidemann said in a statement. "The challenge is to ensure a high-quality educational experience through outstanding instruction, learning design and student support."
Like many institutions that have moved into that space, UA is building on the experience gained from offering online graduate degrees. The university’s telemedicine program, for example, dates back to the mid-1990s. But since the university is largely decentralized, individual departments and colleges have been responsible for creating and marketing their own programs. The university has not yet undertaken a campuswide online education initiative such as UA Online.
UA Online’s launch lineup is a combination of degrees popular among working adults -- such as business administration and early childhood education -- and niche programs in informatics and meteorology. The university plans to have 24 programs available this August, although one is still pending, Del Casino said. By January, the university expects to have added another three or four.
The university will charge in-state and out-of-state students the same: $490 a unit. On-campus, in-state students pay $990.94 per unit, while out-of-state students pay $1,565.94.
Del Casino said the university is trying to “build deliberately” as it expands its online degree offerings, which he said explains why it has taken UA until 2015 to launch anything aimed at undergraduates. Waiting also means the university can benefit from best practices developed by universities with experience in the market, he added.
The university has already made some hires, including in Spanish and online writing, but it is still searching for candidates to help oversee the creation of online degrees in disciplines such as biochemistry, Del Casino said.
“We don’t need every degree at the University of Arizona to be fully online,” Del Casino said. “We’re trying to be strategic in our investments to make sure that the teaching and learning at UA Online parallels what the University of Arizona looks like.”