By Bernie Machen
High school students who are well-rounded, earn great grades and perform well on tests deserve an opportunity to attend our nation’s best universities.
Too often, however, that opportunity proves elusive. Some students don’t apply because they think they can’t afford it or fear they won’t get in. Others apply, but are denied admission because of high demand.
The bottleneck between great students and great schools has troubled me throughout my 10 years as president of the University of Florida. Since 2001, applications to UF have increased 60 percent, yet our built-out Gainesville campus has kept us from raising enrollment. As a result, we’ve turned away more and more top-notch students – and that doesn’t count the many who never even applied.
Thanks to online technology, we are now able to open a door for some of these students through a new initiative, UF Online.
Spearheaded by Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and passed by the Legislature in the spring, UF Online will offer online bachelor’s degree programs to qualified students starting in their freshmen year. We began accepting applications last month to our first five programs set to launch in January: Business administration, criminology and law, environmental management, health education and behavior and sport management. We will add dozens more.
When students apply, they must choose the online or the traditional route. Online admission is for high school graduates and those in college who are working toward a degree. The admission standards for the two are identical — minimum 4.0 GPA and 1800 SAT, as required in the legislation. Likewise, academic rigor for UF Online courses will match that of their traditional counterparts.
By freeing us from space constraints, UF Online will let us admit many more of the qualified students we see among 30,000 applicants who compete each year for just 6,400 spots on campus.
What’s more, online students pay 25 percent less tuition than 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 estimates the cost of housing and food for on-campus students at $9,520 annually. Thus, the total savings for online students who remain home with their families will exceed five figures.
Making UF less expensive creates a unique opportunity for students who, because of economic circumstances or need to work, never even bother applying. We know these students can be successful because of our experience with a UF scholarship for students whose families earn less than $40,000. Started in 2006, the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars program has enabled 2,900 students to attend UF as the first in their families to attend college, with many going on to the most prestigious graduate schools, corporations and non-profits.
If UF Online increases access and reduces cost, it also raises an obvious question: Will online students get the same high-quality education as traditional students?
We’re confident the answer is yes.
Although UF is among the first brick-and-mortar public universities to create an online option for first-time-in-college undergraduates, we have been offering online education at the graduate level for years. In fact, we have about 70 mostly graduate-level online programs with some 7,000 students.
Also, unlike at some other universities, the same faculty who teach UF’s residential undergraduate classes will teach UF Online classes. We will provide financial, technological and teaching support as we work with these faculty to ease the transition from real to virtual classrooms.
Measured by employability, salaries and even health, young people can make no better investment in their future than by earning a college degree. That’s all the more true of those with degrees from the nation’s most widely recognized universities.
UF Online will give many more students in Florida and around the world that opportunity, ensuring that their path in life will be determined not by geography, economics or family circumstances but by hard work and ambition.
Bernie Machen is president of the University of Florida.