UF Online and Enrollment Warning Signs

The University of Florida Online (UF Online) program is one of the highest profile online initiatives to be started over the past few years (alongside other public institution programs such as California’s Online Education Initiative, OpenSUNY, Cal State Online, and Georgia Tech / Udacity). UF Online, which I first described in this blog post, is an exclusively-online baccalaureate program leading to a UF degree for lower costs than the traditional on-campus experience.

As part of a new program augmenting UF Online, qualified students that are not admitted to the University of Florida due to space constraints can be accepted to UF Online’s PaCE program, although the Washington Post in April called out that these students had not asked to be part of UF Online.

Some 3,100 students accepted as freshman by the University of Florida for the fall got a big surprise along with their congratulations notices: They were told that the acceptance was contingent on their agreement to spend their first year taking classes online as part of a new program designed to attract more freshmen to the flagship public university.

The 3,118 applicants accepted this way to the university — above and beyond the approximately 12,000 students offered traditional freshman slots — did not apply to the online program. Nor were they told that there was a chance that they would be accepted with the online caveat. They wound up as part of an admissions experiment.

Fast forward to this week’s news from the Gainesville Sun.

Fewer than 10 percent of 3,118 high school students invited to sign up for a new online program after their applications were rejected for regular admission to the University of Florida have accepted the offer.

The 256 students who signed up for the Pathway to Campus Enrollment [PaCE] program will be guaranteed a spot at UF after they complete the minimum requirements: two semesters and at least 15 hours of online course work. [snip]

The PACE program was created as a way to boost the numbers of first-time-in-college students enrolling in UF Online, to provide an alternate path to residential programs, and to populate major areas of study that have been under-enrolled in recent years.

The fact that less than 10% of students accepted the offer is not necessarily news, as the campus provost predicted this situation last month (see the Washington Post article). What is more troubling is the hubris exhibited by how UF Online is reacting to enrollment problems. Administrators at the university seem to view UF Online as a mechanism to serve institutional needs and are not focused on meeting student needs. This distorted lens is leading to some poor decision-making that is likely making the enrollment situation worse in the long run. Rather than asking “which students need UF Online and what support do they need”, the institution is asking “what do we need and how can we use UF Online to fill any gaps”.

Let’s step back from PaCE and look at the bigger picture. The following chart shows the targeted enrollment numbers that formed the basis for the UF Online strategic plan, compared to actual and currently estimated enrollment (click to enlarge).

Enrollments vs Plan Spring 2015

As of this term, they are off by ~23% (1000 out of a target of 1304 students), which is not unreasonable for a program that started so quickly. What is troubling, however, is that the targets rise quickly (3698 next spring, 6029 the year after) while the actuals have not shown significant growth yet. Note that UF Online is estimating enrollment to double, from 1000 to 2000, for fall 2015 – that is a bold assumption. To make the challenge even more difficult (from March article in Gainesville Sun):

That growth in revenue also depends largely on a growing number of out-of-state online students who would pay four to five times higher tuition rates, based on market conditions.

Specifically, the business plan assumes a mix of 43% out-of-state students in UF Online by year 10, yet currently there are only 9% out-of-state students. How realistic is it to attract large numbers of out-of-state students given the increasing options for online programs?

In the midst of the challenging startup, UF Online had to deal with the premature departure of the initial executive director. After a one-year search process, UF Online chose a new leader who has absolutely no experience in online education.

UF Online is welcoming Evangeline Cummings as its new director, and she has the task of raising the program’s enrollment. [snip]

Cummings starts July 1 with a salary of $185,000. She is currently a director with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

UF spokesman Steve Orlando wrote in an email that she showed skills desirable for the position. “The search committee and the provost were looking for someone with the ability to plan strategically and to manage a large and complex operation,” he said.

At this point, it might have been worth stepping back and challenging some of the original assumptions. Specifically, is UF Online targeting the right students and addressing an unmet need? The plan assumes there are many students who want a U of Florida degree but just can’t get in or want to do so from out of state. This is different than asking what types of students need an anywhere, anytime online program from an R1 university and then figuring out what to provide in an academic program.

Instead, the administrators came up with the PaCE program as a way to augment enrollment. Which academic majors are allowed under PaCE?

The PACE program was created as a way to boost the numbers of first-time-in-college students enrolling in UF Online, to provide an alternate path to residential programs, and to populate major areas of study that have been under-enrolled in recent years.

The school didn’t say “what are the majors that students need once they transfer to the residential program”, they asked “how can we use these online students to fill some gaps we already have”. And students who sign the PaCE contract (yes, it is a contractual agreement) cannot change majors even after they move to a campus program.

And while the students are in UF Online:

PACE students can’t live in student dormitories, and their tuition doesn’t cover meals, health services, the recreation center and other student activities because they aren’t paying the fees for those services. They can’t get student tickets to UF cultural and sporting events.

They also can’t ride for free on Regional Transportation Service buses or get student parking passes.

PACE students also will not be able to participate in intercollegiate athletics or try out for the Gator Marching Band. They can use the libraries on campus but can’t check out books.

U of Florida seems to have spent plenty of time figuring out what not to provide these students.

One additional challenge that UF Online will face is student retention. The Instructional Technology Council (ITC) described in this year’s Distance Education report:

Nationally, student retention in online courses tends to be eight percentage points lower than that of face-to-face instruction. Online students need to be self-disciplined to succeed. Many underestimate how much time online coursework requires. Others fall behind or drop out for the same reasons they enrolled in online courses in the first place—they have other responsibilities and life challenges, such as work and/or family, and are too busy to prepare for, or complete, their online coursework.

Yet UF Online is targeting the students who might have the most trouble with online courses. First-time entering freshman, particularly students who actually want a residential program and might not even understand online programs, are not ideal students to succeed in a fully-online program. San Jose State University and Udacity learned this lesson the hard way, although they threw MOOCs and remedial math into the mix as well.

UF Online seems to be institutionally-focused rather than student-focused, and the initiative is shaping up to be a case study in hubris. Without major changes in how the program is managed, including the main campus input into decisions, UF Online risks becoming the new poster child of online education failures. I honestly hope they succeed, but the current outlook is not encouraging.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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