UNC system weighs development of an online bachelors degree

The UNC Board of Governors heard details on developing an online program that reaches more students who cannot come to campus every day

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
(Photo Illustration by Christine T. Nguyen | The North State Journal)

CHAPEL HILL — Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors Louis Bissette and Vice Chairman Roger Aiken were having dinner in Davidson, N.C., earlier this year and got to know their waiter. He was a veteran with a family and a full-time job and was finishing his undergraduate degree in his limited spare time. He told them that he was studying at ASU. Bissette assumed that meant Appalachian State University, but the waiter said, “No, Arizona State University online.”In a meeting last week, Bissette relayed the interaction to the UNC Board of Governors because it highlighted why there is a growing interest among the members to study the possibility of an all-online bachelor’s program within the UNC system. The challenge is to make it a deliberate and coordinated online program so they can reach more students who perhaps cannot come to campus every day.”UNC system’s online strategy remains undefined,” Bissette told members. “We have neither the data nor governance structure in place to drive truly transformational change when it comes to enhancing digital pathways through higher education to more broadly reach new groups of learners.”Adrian Sannier, chief academic technology officer for ASU Online, presented the board with an overview and the learning lessons of developing their successful online bachelor’s program, a program that earned Arizona State System nearly $200 million last year. The UNC system’s 17 campuses offer individual online classes, but none at the moment offer a bachelor’s degree completely online. With the cost of a college education a growing concern for students, along with finding space and facilities for everyone who wants to attend, some say online college is looking like a viable option in N.C.”This business model that we currently have, where students come to campus — well, we know who they are, we know how many there are, and how they are coming, and the ratios of how many we can serve and deliver education,” said Sannier during his presentation. “We aren’t addressing those students who can’t come to campus, and they are missing out on the education”We all know the nontraditional students now outnumber the traditional students, and getting that group of students to come down to campus and move into the senior dorm, that’s not going to happen.”ASU launched its program in 2005 and saw it through several incarnations. It started with 1,500 students and this year brought in 35,000 students and nearly $200 million for the university system, a figure that is expected to double within the decade. ASU’s online system is not only lucrative for the university system, it is regarded as one of the most well-developed and reputable programs in the nation. Rep. Ed Hanes (D-Forsyth), who has worked to broaden access to higher education within N.C., was there to listen in on the presentation.”How have UNC Chapel Hill, NC State, our system more generally, allowed a school in Arizona to jump so far out in front if them in this area? They jumped out far ahead because they were willing to change their thinking earlier to get a competitive edge in the future. We are now, surprisingly, playing catch up,” said Hanes.Ultimately ASU decided to partner with Pearson, an online education provider, to help with their online offerings. Sannier emphasized one primary piece of advice; ensure that UNC retains control over the academics.”No one designs your programs but you, no one does anything from the academic perspective but your faculty,” he said to the members of the UNC Board of Governors. “Your faculty is your asset. In essence building an online presence like this is about projecting your faculty to a greater audience.”Building the UNC system’s online presence has been a priority for system president Margaret Spellings since she took office last year. The presentation at the Board of Governors meeting put more people in her camp on the idea. The challenges ahead are determining how the program would be designed and how profits would be distributed.”There are all kinds of granular issues that are real but manageable but it’s an exciting time for the university system, and I think the General Assembly would be for it,” said Hanes.