3,100 high school seniors told: Welcome to UF Gator Nation, online-only

The seniors are offered online-only status, which changes after a number of credits.
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Acceptance to Florida's flagship public university this spring came with a huge twist for roughly 3,100 high school seniors: They are welcome to join Gator Nation, but only by computer — at least at first.

In a new experiment, the University of Florida is offering students who otherwise would not have made the cut for traditional freshman enrollment another option of attending classes online-only until they've accumulated two years of study. They are guaranteed admission on-campus after that.

The offer to join Pathway to Campus Enrollment, or PaCE, comes with reduced tuition for the years spent online, and officials are hoping as many as 300 to 400 students might take advantage of the offer, enrolling in programs that are currently undersubscribed. Both Bright Futures scholarships and pre-paid tuition plans could be used for the program.

"If you are a psychology major, you are not getting admitted. If you want to be a mathematics major, we say, fine, come into PaCE," said UF provost Joe Glover.

It's the latest iteration of higher education edging away from the physical classroom to forgo capital costs but also provide online options aimed at reaching students everywhere. Two years ago, the Florida Legislature required UF and other state universities to offer select online-only degree programs, at 75 percent of regular tuition. About 1,000 of UF's 51,000 students are now pursing a dozen or so degree programs solely online.

But the PaCE program is a separate, hybrid admissions strategy launched just weeks after details were finalized. Students didn't apply for it as they might other online programs. They were the next top applicants after UF's highly-selective admissions process identified 12,000 for traditional freshmen admission, roughly 6,500 of which are expected to accept. Nor does UF keep a waitlist for undergraduate admissions.

That's caused confusion, Glover acknowledges.

"We got quite a few calls. People did not understand,'' he said. "Some were upset.'' But Glover thinks over time, it will gain acceptance in a digital era, given that more students will get into UF: "We are optimists.''

Under the PaCE plan, the students must forgo classroom instruction for at least two semesters and will receive a 25 percent discount on tuition. They are guaranteed residential admission, once they amass 60 course credit hours outside the university's traditional classrooms (equivalent of four 15-hour semesters). Qualifying credits can stem from high school Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, dual-enrollment and community college classes. But they must include at least 15 hours from online UF courses. Once PaCE students switch to the traditional residential track, they pay full tuition.

PaCE students can participate in many school activities, buy meal plans and get some free counseling and health services. But they will not pay student fees, nor use university recreational centers. And students may choose to work from home, Glover said, but "our expectation is that some students will move to Gainesville while earning the 15 (online) hours, live off campus, take classes at Santa Fe Community College, go to football games, and enjoy the atmosphere.''

The program will not detract from UF's practice of admitting roughly 2,500 community college graduates a year, Glover said. "We will bring more bodies to campus to raise enrollment. But we will not overtax programs that are over-enrolled.''

And it also won't work for all students. Land O'Lakes High School senior Zoe Guiney was happy to get a letter welcoming her to UF, even off-campus, considering admission an honor.

But despite her 4.1 GPA and 15 college credits, she is declining.

Guiney wants to pursue a premed degree and UF's website cautions that the PaCE program may not suit health sciences majors, because prerequisite courses like chemistry and biology usually are taught in the classroom, not online.

But Gonzalo Carrizales, who carries a 5.033 grade point average at Plant City's Durant High School, is intrigued.

"I'm thinking about the pros and cons,'' Carrizales, 18, said. "I don't want to say 'Yes' and find out the program isn't prepared enough.''

On the other hand, Carrizales said, he's not ready to settle yet for his second choice, the University of Tampa. UF has a premier journalism school, known for landing good internships, and he wants to study advertising. Between AP and dual enrollment classes in high school, Carrizales has already earned 15 college credits. One of his high school courses was online, now a Florida graduation requirement.

"I'm good with computers,'' Carrizales said. "I think I could do well.''

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The name of Gonzalo Carrizales was misspelled in a Wednesday story on a new admission program at the University of Florida.

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