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  1. Opinion

Column: Online college an ivory tower delusion

The new online college being created by the University of Florida is an extraordinary triumph of delusional thinking and a great testimonial to the obtuseness of our governor. Having presided over the dramatic dismantling of public financial support for the state's public universities, the governor has now found a willing collaborator — the president of the University of Florida — who plans to help him create an imaginary university that will grant college degrees to students without access to the real thing.

The price the governor is paying to build this imaginary ivory castle is $15 million — which is a lot less, one must concede, than he has taken from the state's higher education budget over time.

It is a remarkable ploy, convincing at least some people that everything is just fine: College will be available for all, at reasonable prices, and the degrees will be conferred by and have the same name as a great (well, once-great) football team.

And the best part is, ostensibly, everybody wins: The governor gets to cut the budget and take credit for making public education more accessible and affordable, and the president of the University of Florida is seen as a farsighted, innovative leader.

What else?

• The companies who are selling the snake-oil of "disruptive innovation" (Pearson, Coursera, Udacity, etc.) will make millions.

• The graduates of the University of Florida will have fellow alumni who paid much less for their degrees than they did, saw fewer real professors and earned their degrees in their pajamas.

• The legislators and higher education boards of trustees will claim that public higher education in Florida is forward-looking and has the capacity Florida needs — all while continuing to reduce the budget for public universities.

• And the students … well, not everyone can be a winner in the shell game that is Florida's public higher education system.

What seems to have been forgotten in all this is that the experience of college life is as much a part of a young person's transition to adulthood as the education itself. Those pajama-clad 18-year-olds in their families' basements are missing the learning gained from peers; interactions with professors who can provide mentoring, career advice and connections to internships, graduate schools and jobs; the personal and supportive environment of the college setting in which to make the inevitable gaffes and errors in judgment of young people a learning experience; the ease of access to academic resources; and the experience of navigating campus life as a preparation for the world of work and adulthood.

It is no secret that there is a crisis in leadership in our country. Higher education can play a role in turning that around. Leaders in higher education should focus on fixing and refining what works rather than inventing new approaches to offer "cheaper-better-faster" degrees without an eye toward what young people really need to become contributing, thoughtful, engaged heirs to our future.

Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.