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Friday, Nov 21, 2014
Editorials

UF online program offers chance to thousands of worthy students

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Getting into college is a lot more difficult today than a generation ago, when the costs and competition were not nearly as steep.

Each year the University of Florida accepts 6,400 freshmen — and rejects 23,000 applicants. Many of those rejections have more to do with demand than with academics. Thousands of worthy students never apply because the cost for housing and food is prohibitive.

But starting in January, the University of Florida will offer an online bachelor’s degree program that cuts tuition costs and eliminates the major financial barrier associated with room and board.

The new program puts UF and the state at the forefront of the expanding online education field, and should be a model for universities faced with similar demand and rising costs.

Credit state House Speaker Will Weatherford for taking a keen interest in expanding online education and for helping to make the UF program a reality. Other universities offer online learning, but UF is pioneering one of the nation’s first fully online bachelor’s degree programs offered by a respected brick-and-mortar university.

The affordability and accessibility will give thousands of students a shot at a UF degree that they otherwise would not have. As the Tribune’s Jerome R. Stockfisch reported, the legislation creating the program mandates that in-state students pay no more than 75 percent of the tuition costs charged to on-campus students.

“Full-time UF online students will pay less than $4,000 in tuition and fees compared to $6,270 for residential students,” UF President Bernie Machen wrote in a column published this week in the Tribune. The students will also save the estimated $9,500 in annual room and board costs.

Five majors will be offered when the program starts, but the university expects as many as 35 majors will be offered within a decade, drawing as many as 24,000 online students.

Some of the university’s board members have raised legitimate questions about the academic rigor of online learning, the quality of the online students and whether the flood of online learners will dilute the university’s academic standing.

UF officials insist they have created a program that keeps the university’s standards in place. The undergraduate faculty teaching on campus will teach online, and required lab work might be offered at university research facilities around the state or on the Gainesville campus during the summer. The admission standards will be the same as for on-campus students.

The move to offer online bachelor’s degrees seems a natural progression in an increasingly digital world. There may be no substitute for the social experience that comes with attending a major college.

But for those deserving students who can’t afford that experience, or are denied that experience because there isn’t enough room on campus, the online bachelor’s degree offers a path toward a UF degree and all of the doors that will open down the road.

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