Florida Looks to Double Down on Online Higher Education

When Florida officials are talking about expanding online degree programs, they are talking about more than a few additional courses offered over the internet at the state’s public colleges and universities. When the committee of the Board of Governors – the body that governs the state’s higher education system – met earlier this week to talk about online learning, they were looking to expand the number of majors that would allow students to complete them entirely from the comfort of their homes.

One thing that the board members didn’t tackle – although prior to the meeting there was an expectation that they might – was the idea of creating a wholly virtual online university. The idea had been bandied about by experts, but according to the Orlando Sentinel, the projected cost of establishing such an institution – between $65 and $70 million dollars – must have made it look less appealing.

Even without additional online majors, Florida is already considered a pioneer in offering degree programs over the internet. University of Central Florida, for example, offers dozens of such programs already.

As university officials research expanding online education, they might consider reducing tuition for at least some online programs as way to draw students to them. Officials also might consider lowering admissions requirements for at least some programs.

“We need to look carefully at the tuition model in order to be competitive,” Randy Hanna, chancellor of the state’s 28 community colleges, urged the committee. “For those [students] who are online only, seriously consider the potential of reducing tuition.”

The board still has a number of unanswered questions before it, including how best to mix online and traditional learning in order to produce the best outcomes. Recent research suggests that the optimal way to achieve this goal would be to create a blended program that combined the elements of each approach.

To get a better handle on its options, earlier this year the board hired a consulting group to examine how the state’s post-secondary online education might be improved, including costs and revenue projections. The Parthenon Group recently submitted its final report after four months of analysis of the state’s current online offerings.

The report outlines four distrinct approaches the state might pursue. They can continue the current policy of allowing universities to develop their own online programs. They can create an online education platform that would unify the offerings of all the schools in the system. They can allow one school to become the de facto online education provider. Or – the option that seemed to have appealed to board members the least – they can create a new online-only university.

Committee members said Monday that they want more information on the implications of such an initiative so they can continue exploring the idea over time.

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