LITTLE ROCK — Geography for many attending a state college or university in Arkansas is more than just a course. It sometimes determines one’s educational future.
For years, state colleges and universities have offered online classes, as well as some completely online degree programs, mostly at the masters level in education. But despite their convenience, the location of the school is still a major impediment for many when considering a higher education because of finances, employment schedules or family obligations, among other things.
However, competition for those students from out-of-state institutions with online programs, many of them for-profits such as the University of Phoenix, has caused state higher education officials to re-evaluate their online offerings, Arkansas Department of Higher Education Director Shane Broadway said during legislative budget hearings last month.
There are 73 out-of-state post-secondary institutions that are certified by the ADHE.
“It is certainly a competition to our institutions,” Broadway said, noting that the for-profit institutions are becoming increasingly popular. “Obviously you can’t turn on a TV and not see an ad for one of these institutions that are not Arkansas-based institutions.”
Broadway said a number of Arkansas institutions have expanded online offerings, and he said his department is also developing a website that will allow students to access online degree programs and courses more conveniently at the state’s two- and four-year schools.
Ultimately, he said, a student in one region of the state will be able to take courses online from several state schools throughout the state at the same time.
“We’re developing a website that would be housed through us and would link a student to all our institutions that offer courses online, so that a student can go to that institution,” Broadway said. “There are discussions about developing just that, where you could either go through one entity for the whole thing or possibly different courses at several different institutions.”
Broadway told the committee that the goal is to try and lure back those Arkansans now enrolled in the out-of-state programs. While enrollment in state colleges and universities last fall was down slightly, the number of Arkansans enrolling in out-of-state institutions has risen in the past few years, he said.
During the 2012-2013 academic year, 11,185 Arkansans were enrolled in online programs outside the state, and 1,270 received their degrees, according to the ADHE. About 3,760 were enrolled in online programs with state schools and 568 graduated.
Michael Moore, vice president of academic affairs for the University of Arkansas System, said expanding online opportunities is one of UA System President Donald Bobbitt’s highest priorities.
“I think what has happened nationally, in Arkansas as well, is the growth of the online for-profits has shown folks there are a population of students out there that are interested in either completing a degree or earning an additional degree, or in some cases perhaps even going to school for the first time, that don’t have the ability to attend the traditional campus,” Moore said.
Moore, who has taught online courses for more than a decade and helped the University of Texas at Arlington revamp its online presence before being hired by the UA system in January 2013, said his division is developing a website that will link all the online offerings throughout the UA system to make them more accessible.
Christy Valentine, special assistant to the provost at Arkansas State University, said when the online push started about a decade ago the majority of the online degree programs were at the masters level in education. A master’s in business administration also was common.
In the last few years, both ASU and institutions in the UA system, as well as most other four-year universities in the state, have been adding degree programs — bachelor’s as well as master’s-level — that are available solely online. Many are designed for non-traditional students who already have 30 hours or more, while others offer all the courses.
ASU now has a bachelor’s of science in interdisciplinary studies and recently added a master’s in sports management, Valentine said.
“I think the for-profit schools sparked our interest in online education, but truthfully the way we look at it now and the way we approach it and the way we are expanding is strictly mission-driven rationale because we believe that in order to serve the markets that we need to serve we’ve got to provide this convenience,” she said.
“As we look to expand our programs, we don’t take a look at Phoenix and those other competitors and say, ‘well they’re offering this and we need to do the same thing,’” she said. “We really take a look at our market and see what’s best for the students.”
Moore said three two-year colleges — UA-Hope, UA-Batesville and Phillips County Community College in West Memphis — currently have an online program where a student can be enrolled at one of the institutions and take online classes from the other two and count them toward their associate’s degree.
Broadway told lawmakers that online classes and degree programs are convenient but not for everybody.
“It is certainly, especially for a number of adults, I think, who are working, trying to raise a family, who can’t necessarily drive to a campus and take a course, a much better option than what they have had before,” Broadway said.
“On a traditional campus there are growing experiences, a maturation, there are leadership opportunities, a full curriculum,” he said, adding that there are also social activities.
“I think it’s important for all of our institutions to be strategic about what degree programs they put online and really understand why they are putting a particular degree program or course online,” he said.
Broadway and Moore also said the cost of receiving an online degree from a state school in Arkansas is much less expensive than from a for-profit or out-of-state institution.
Moore said for-profits, such as University of Phoenix, are very aggressive in acquiring federal loans for their students and they have high tuition costs.
A 2012 report by the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee found that there were higher rates of loan defaults at for-profit institutions, higher-than-average tuition, low retention rates and little job placement assistance. The report was pushed by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a longtime critic of the industry.