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story.lead_photo.caption Graph showing information about applications for The University of Arkansas System’s eVersity - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / SOURCE: University of Arkansas System

Going back to his faculty roots, the University of Arkansas System's vice president for academic affairs still hands out grades.

As of late, Michael Moore is measuring progress in what has been his main task for the past four years: building a stand-alone, online-only university for the system. That school, eVersity, first opened to students in September 2015, taking aim at the state's estimated 213,987 adult learners who started college but never finished and promising them accessibility and affordability.

Now -- two years in -- Moore said he would give everything but enrollment an A grade. Enrollment -- on which eVersity will soon rely exclusively for revenue -- remains its biggest challenge and would earn a B-minus, he said, adding that the university has about 650 students, just short of the university's anticipated mark of 1,000.

"We're a few months behind that," he said. "One of the lessons we learned early on that I think caught all of us off guard was that so many of our students are bringing to us so many credit hours that what we needed early on in the first few months were more upper-division courses, and we played a little catch-up trying to get those upper-division courses."

The eVersity's overall goal is to have more Arkansans with college degrees. The state has historically trailed its peers with the percentage of adults who have college degrees, and research has shown that degrees affect things ranging from salaries to crime rates and health outcomes. A more educated workforce also helps a state attract business and industry, Arkansas leaders have said.

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The online-only university entered the online-learning market at a time when Arkansas was already home to more than 100 distance-education providers, including the now 20-year-old nonprofit, Western Governors University. It wasn't going to be a sure success: other universities -- such as the ones in the Illinois system -- tried and failed.

And the UA System's effort had less startup funding than its peers: $7 million, including $5 million in loans from other system schools, Moore said. Western Governors started with $40 million, and Colorado State University-Global is celebrating a decade after putting down $12 million in 2007.

Online degree programs work particularly well for adult learners, who need flexibility to fit their educational goals into work, family and other commitments, said Jennifer Groh, associate vice president of higher education for The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

"The more effective models are those that incorporate faculty engagement and an effective process for assessment of learning outcomes," she said. "Other considerations for online program models -- and any program serving adult learners -- is its affordability and relevance to post-completion outcomes."

In its nearly two-year existence, eVersity has awarded one bachelor's degree and 15 associate degrees, said Nate Hinkel, the UA System's director of communications. All but one of the associate degree graduates came to eVersity with more than 60 credit hours -- what is usually needed for the two-year degree, he said.

The first bachelor's degree was awarded to Joey Mounts, 55, of Ozark, in July.

Mounts initially enrolled at the University of Central Arkansas in 1980 with a goal of getting a degree in computer science. Mounts' father had died his senior year of high school, and after three years at UCA, he went back home to Pine Bluff to help support his family, he said. He started work and then met the woman who would become his wife.

About 1987, he enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff hoping eventually to teach. At that time, he had a budding family and had another child on the way, he said. Mounts enrolled for two semesters there, though his second was riddled with absences and poor grades because of time spent in the intensive care unit when his second child experienced health problems, he said.

The family later settled in Newport, where Mounts became a minister. By the mid-1990s, Mounts decided to enroll at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, traveling three days a week to take his upper-division classes. He already had about 130 credit hours, 10 more than what is typically needed for a bachelor's degree, he said.

The travel got to Mounts, who at the time had four children, he said. ASU also didn't have the courses he needed at the times he could attend. And so began his 22-year hiatus, heightened in 2003 by a debilitating back injury.

He had looked into going back to school every now and then but was deterred by costs and credit transfers, he said. Many colleges would have made him start completely over, he said.

For Mounts, eVersity was convenient. Advisers enrolled him in the right courses, he could stay home with family, and eVersity took most of his credits, leaving with him nine hours needed to graduate, he said.

"It was about showing my kids that Dad was going to finish what he started, especially because I have college-aged kids," he said. "It was something that I never completed and it bothered me. I knew that I was so close."

The university has used similar student testimonials and stories to increase awareness in its brand and in marketing efforts, Moore said.

That's why, in part, the university saw its highest applicant pool last month, second only to when it first opened, he said. It has received more than 1,400 applications, and about 190 of those students have not logged into the first, free, one credit-hour course, called Engage, Hinkel said.

"We wanted to be fair to our students," Moore said. "We didn't want to, say a year ago, push real hard and aggressive for enrollment when we knew we didn't have any courses we could put them in."

The eVersity has built 86 courses from the ground up in its five degree areas and has only one -- legal issues in technology -- left to go. The professor building the course is also teaching for eVersity, and administrators expect it to be done in the next few weeks, Moore said.

The online-only university has also started employer alliances, in which businesses will advertise internally or allow eVersity to come talk to their employees. In exchange, eVersity will give those employees and their family members a 5 percent discount. Tuition is $165 per credit hour.

Employers that have signed on include Tyson Foods, the city of Bryant and the Washington County sheriff's office.

Students attending eVersity are, on average, about 36 years old and mostly women. They have about 70 hours of college credits and have been to at least two other colleges or universities. About seven of every 10 have federal financial aid, which includes the Pell Grant, money typically reserved for low-income students that does not need to be repaid, and loans.

The university needs about 700 students enrolled past the Engage course to have tuition cover its expenses, Moore said. The eVersity is still using its startup funds but will need to find a way to rely on tuition revenue within a year, he said.

"The challenge with enrollment is I don't think there's a single magic bullet to fix this," he said. "It has a lot to do with who we're trying to reach."

For high school seniors, the next logical step is college. Teens take the ACT and SAT college-entrance exams, fill out college applications, and off they go, Moore said. But someone who is 45 years old and hasn't been in school for more than a decade may not even be thinking of college anymore.

"At some point, you quit looking at advertisements and messages about college and instead you're looking at advertisements on buying clothes for your kids, how to refinance your mortgage on your house," he said. "You just focus on other things and so ... we've got to cut through a tremendous amount of fog with these people because they have given up on the dream of getting a college degree."

A good number of adults have tried to go back, he said.

"They're just, they're frustrated with admissions processes, they're frustrated with financial aid processes, they're frustrated that schools won't take their credits to transfer and by having the ability to create a green field and build this university from the ground up ... we said we want to build a new university that gets rid of as many warts as we possibly can from the way other people do business," he said.

"When you ask the question every day, 'What is in the best interest of students?,' it's amazing how clear your pathway becomes."

Metro on 09/04/2017

Print Headline: Online university seeks students; UA System’s eVersity reaching Arkansans without degrees

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  • Foghorn
    September 4, 2017 at 1:31 p.m.

    So many issues here it's hard to know where to start. The target demographic is adult learners with some college but no degree. They're CLEARLY going to have credit hours. How is it that 'caught them off guard'? They must immediately rethink the whole model. This is not a lucrative market. The evidence around the ONLY bachelors degree conferred in 2yrs of operation (to someone who made bad decisions over 30+yrs and finally got his act together) should drive home that reality. What about all the high school 'graduates' who read at 5th grade level and need remedial courses if they ever have a chance at a degree? What about targeting courses to local employment opps? This team needs to engage pronto with employers to determine how they can turn out qualified employees or eVersity won't/shouldn't survive.

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