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  1. Opinion

Column: UF widens access with online learning

Published Jun. 10, 2015

Faced with an ever-growing pool of increasingly exceptional applicants and limited space, University of Florida officials have a track record of creating visionary new ways to make the university accessible to as many students as possible.

The latest innovation is called PaCE — Pathway to Campus Enrollment — an extraordinary new program whose time has come.

Twenty years ago, UF was the first university in the country to launch universal tracking, a system that keeps students on schedule to graduate in a timely fashion, thereby freeing up space for a new crop of students. Numerous other universities imitated UF's model.

UF led the way again with Innovation Academy, which launched in 2013 and puts students on a spring-summer class schedule that lets them take the fall off to pursue traditionally summertime activities such as internships and study abroad. Innovation Academy's signature feature is entrepreneurship: Students are steeped in creativity, ethics and leadership as they learn how to grow new business opportunities, services and products.

Innovation Academy enrollment now stands at more than 730.

Now comes PaCE. Students selecting PaCE will enroll in UF Online, our online bachelor's degree campus, for a minimum of two semesters. Students can then choose to move from online learning to a guaranteed spot on the UF residential campus.

To our knowledge, UF is the first major research university to offer admission to a program like PaCE.

We began it with a soft launch in February, offering spots to a little more than 3,100 of the 30,000 students who applied. That's 3,100 students over and above the 13,600 to whom we offered traditional admission. Without this program, these students wouldn't have had the opportunity to become a Gator as a freshman.

Though we did not advertise or market the program beyond high school counselors, 278 early adopters have accepted the PaCE offer. We're confident the number will grow for several reasons:

• Today's students have expectations about how they receive education that are very different from previous generations. Millennials grew up on the Internet, and online education is nothing new for them. In fact, five states including Florida require students to take at least one online course in order to receive a standard high school diploma.

• The technology and pedagogy behind UF Online makes it possible to deliver an undergraduate educational experience that we believe is worthy of the University of Florida name.

• Students and their families can realize significant cost savings because UF Online tuition is 75 percent of that for on-campus students, and UF Online students pay fees only for services they're likely to use, such as technology and financial aid.

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Finally, PaCE gives us one more tool in our efforts to fulfill our educational mission as a land-grant institution and provide access.

Technology, market forces and generational shift are reshaping the landscape rapidly and in unprecedented ways. We in higher education have an obligation to teach our students not only how to adapt to that change, but also to effect it.

We owe it to our students to lead by example.

Kent Fuchs is the president of the University of Florida. This is exclusive in Florida to the Tampa Bay Times.

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