Saturday, February 24, 2018

Column: Online openings for top students

High school students who are well-rounded, earn great grades and perform well on tests deserve an opportunity to attend our nation's best universities. • Too often, however, that opportunity proves elusive. Some students don't apply to top schools because they think they can't afford it or fear they won't get in. Others apply, but are denied admission because of high demand. • The bottleneck between great students and great schools has troubled me throughout my 10 years as president of the University of Florida. Since 2001, applications to UF have increased 60 percent, yet our built-out Gainesville campus has kept us from raising enrollment. As a result, we've turned away more and more top-notch students — and that doesn't count the many who never even applied.

Thanks to online technology, we are now able to open a door for these students through a new initiative, UF Online. The Board of Governors just approved our business plan for the program on Friday.

Spearheaded by Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and passed by the Legislature in the spring, UF Online will offer online bachelor's degree programs to qualified students starting in their freshmen year. We began accepting applications earlier this month to our first five degree programs, set to launch in January, and will add dozens more programs in future years.

By freeing us of space constraints, UF Online will let us admit many more of the qualified students we see among 30,000 applicants who compete each year for just 6,400 spots on campus.

What's more, online students pay 25 percent less tuition than on-campus students — seriously reducing their costs when considered with the lower cost of living at home.

Full-time UF Online students will pay less than $4,000 in tuition and fees compared to $6,270 for residential students. UF estimates the cost of housing and food for on-campus students at $9,520 annually. Thus, the total savings for online students who remain home with their families will exceed five figures.

Lower costs and reduced indebtedness are beneficial to anyone.

But making UF less expensive also creates a unique opportunity for students who, because of their family's economic circumstances or need to work, never even bother applying.

We know these students are out there — and we know they can be successful in UF's rigorous academic environment — because of our experience with a UF scholarship for students whose families earn less than $40,000. Started in 2006, the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars program has enabled 2,900 students to attend UF who are the first in their families to attend college, with many going on to the nation's most prestigious graduate schools, corporations and nonprofits.

If UF Online increases access and reduces cost, it also raises an obvious question: Will online students get the same high-quality UF education as the university's traditional students?

We're confident the answer is yes.

Although UF is among the first bricks-and-mortar public universities to create an online option for first-time-in-college undergraduates, we have been offering online education at the graduate level for years. In fact, we currently have about 70 mostly graduate-level online programs with some 7,000 students — experience that will prove invaluable as we develop UF Online's undergraduate degree programs.

Also, unlike at some other universities nationally, the same faculty who teach UF's residential undergraduate classes will teach UF Online classes. We will provide financial, technological and teaching support as we work with these faculty to ease the transition from real to virtual classrooms.

Measured by employability, salaries and even health, young people can make no better investment in their future than by earning a college degree. That's all the more true of those with degrees from the nation's most widely recognized universities.

UF Online will give many more students in Florida and around the world that opportunity, ensuring that their path in life will be determined not by geography, economics or family circumstances — but rather by hard work and ambition.

Bernie Machen is the president of the University of Florida.

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