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Colleges and universities in the University of Arkansas System will face more scrutiny when proposing new degree programs that are fully online.

Now, chancellors who want to add an online-degree program that already exists within the UA System must explain why another distance-education offering is needed. The justification is just for degree programs -- not courses -- that are completely online.

"I didn't draw a line in the sand and say, 'No never,'" UA System President Donald Bobbitt said. "But, I will tell you that the scrutiny on a proposed program is going to be intense."

Bobbitt called for the action to limit the number of identical undergraduate online-degree programs within the system's 12 schools, including online-only university eVersity. The rule doesn't apply to traditional degree offerings with in-the-seat students or to the smattering of online courses that colleges and universities offer to complement students in classrooms.

"Once you start talking about online, now you really have to work hard to justify why there ought to be even two of a certain program because it can be delivered -- geography is no longer an issue," Bobbitt said. "Following up on that, the concern is that there's a waste of resources to begin with... So if I have two programs each teaching almost an identical thing with 50 students in two campuses, I have two faculty [members], I have two support staff. There's two, two, two, two, and in one case here, four of everything. And that's a waste of resources."

The action will not take away opportunities for students, but schools could use potential savings to help fund more student-success initiatives, the system said.

The soft moratorium comes as state funding for Arkansas' higher-education institutions has stagnated and as legislators challenge the institutions to make do with what they have while graduating more students. In other states, policymakers have placed similar pressure on higher-education leaders, some of whom have faced cuts in state funding.

At the UA System, Bobbitt has asked his chancellors to invest in student-success initiatives, or those aimed at keeping students from year to year and ensuring they are progressing toward graduation. The system has redone a contract with a learning-management system called Blackboard, allowing all of its schools to use the same platform. It's also working on bidding out a systemwide software project that will handle student-services information, financial data and human-resources matters.

Bobbitt met with chancellors last week about several matters, including the soft moratorium. A quick review of online degree programs in the system shows that four universities offer programs in which registered nurses can earn bachelor's degrees in nursing, four have a university studies degree program and three schools -- one, a consortium of Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas, University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville and the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope -- offer an associate of arts degree.

That doesn't count the identical programs offered online by other institutions in the state or those from out-of-state providers.

"So I would say if choice is the issue that you want to preserve, students have too much choice in this state," Bobbitt said.

Online courses ballooned in 2009 and 2010 during the economic downturn as people sought to further their educations to qualify for jobs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Arkansas, Bobbitt said, students' complex schedules -- school, work, families and extracurricular activities -- have prompted courses and degree programs to move online. But, he added, most students still are taking courses delivered traditionally, with only a few online classes to supplement their schedules.

Deborah Frazier, chancellor of the Batesville school, said she didn't think the two-year colleges would be affected much by the moratorium. The college was one of three in the UA System in 1998 that with system administration was able to start the consortium of colleges offering the associate degree fully online, she said.

"We as community colleges have very limited resources," Frazier said. "Collectively, that was the only way we could do it. There just wasn't funding."

The consortium splits up the costs, with each college pitching in a third, she said, adding that the system helped train faculty members and provide quality courses. The consortium also has deepened relationships of the three colleges, allowing officials to confer on problems or innovations, she said.

Many campus leaders at the four-year universities have said they support Bobbitt's plan.

"I'm fully on board with his perspective," University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Paul Beran said. "With the current situation for funding -- he's trying to be proactive rather than be reactive."

Through online degree programs, UAFS has aimed to serve community colleges by offering "completer programs," or those that would help students who already have 45 to 60 credits earn a bachelor's degree, he said. UAFS is one of the four schools, including the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, that has the bachelor's program for registered nurses completely online.

That program has proliferated in part because it makes the student more valuable professionally, officials said. The nurse likely would get a raise, and the employer may get larger reimbursements from insurance companies and the federal government, leaders said.

Any new degree programs -- whether online or in classrooms -- are vetted through various groups starting at the department level up to the chancellor's desk. Once chancellors approve it, the proposed degree program is in Bobbitt's hands, then the UA System board of trustees and ultimately the state Higher Education Coordinating Board.

At the UA campus in Fayetteville, Chancellor Joe Steinmetz said he always weighs three things when deciding whether to put a degree program online: Is the program actually needed? Is it financially viable? How is the quality?

"I have a standard that it has to be at least equal or greater quality than programs we have traditionally," he said. "I think in the discussion we've had, the concern should be the proliferation and duplication of programs. That affects those two checked things: need and viability. As we proliferate more and more programs, the need goes down, and so does viability."

Bobbitt and the chancellors said there's a misconception that online-degree programs or courses are cheaper. But colleges and universities have to pay development and technology costs, including software to ensure academic integrity. It also has meant technological support has to be available at more unusual hours. Then, there are marketing costs to ensure that the program has enough students.

UAFS and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock said they usually pull from community college partners through "2+2 partnerships," where students can earn an associate degree or a workforce certification at the two-year college and finish up a bachelor's degree at a four-year university. Last year, UALR also started a digital marketing campaign, in which officials tracked the number of people who saw advertisements and later came in, said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Zulma Toro.

Toro spoke to the campus community last week about the soft moratorium and said many questioned how UALR -- which she said has 15 to 19 online-degree programs -- will deal with it.

"We have to find a way to do what we need, to innovate and come up with different academic programs," she said, adding that the process will help elevate the quality of the program.

UALR can distinguish itself through the experiences it provides students and the faculty members teaching the courses, she said, adding that a concentration or a minor could make a program more unique.

"This is something that we know we know how to deal with," she said.

Andrew Wright, president of UALR's faculty senate and university assembly, said that if there's a sufficient draw, there's a reason to have the program.

"You just have to see how it plays it out," said Wright, an associate professor of systems engineering. "I think UALR has certainly been in the business of trying to make sure that we craft programs and deliver those that are attractive to the kinds of students we are trying to serve."

At Fayetteville, Steinmetz said he's hoping to create more 2+2 partnerships and that the system eases transfer of credits. In Ohio, where Steinmetz previously worked, the chancellor said students could take an online course in any of the state universities and easily transfer it to their home schools. The classes -- online or in classrooms -- received statewide approval, facilitating credit transfers, he said.

Going forward, Bobbitt said he would like the system to consolidate a "central list" for students wanting to take certain courses or programs online.

"I think you'll probably see that after a while, our institutions will have to make a decision whether they continue to offer an online version that typically pulls in 15 or 20 students at a start or whether they take those resources they are devoting to it and devote them to the traditional students so that they can have better success in the classroom and eventually commencement and graduation," he said.

Metro on 09/25/2016

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