The online university seeks students; UA System’s eVersity reaches Arkansans without degrees

Going back to his professorial roots, the vice president of academic affairs for the University of Arkansas system is still handing out notes.

Lately, Michael Moore is measuring progress on what has been his primary task for the past four years: building an autonomous, online-only university for the system. This school, eVersity, was first opened to students in September 2015, targeting the state’s estimated 213,987 adult learners who started college but never finished and promises them accessibility and affordability.

Now – two years later – Moore said he would give everything but registration an A grade. Registration – which eVersity will soon depend exclusively on for revenue – remains his biggest challenge and would earn a B-minus. , he said, adding that the university has about 650 students, just short of the 1,000 mark expected by the university.

“We are a few months late,” he said. “One of the lessons we learned early on that I think caught us all off guard was that so many of our students bring us so many credit hours than we had. needed at the beginning of the first few months, it was more upper division courses, and we played a bit of catch-up trying to get those higher division courses.”

The overall goal of eVersity is to have more Arkansans with college degrees. The state has historically lagged its peers with the percentage of adults with a college degree, and research has shown that degrees affect things from salaries to crime rates and health outcomes. A more educated workforce also helps a state attract business and industry, Arkansas leaders 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 learning providers, including the now nonprofit Western Governors University. 20 years old. It was not going to be a sure hit: other universities, like those in the Illinois system, tried and failed.

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

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

“The most effective models are those that incorporate faculty engagement and an effective process for assessing learning outcomes,” she said. “Other considerations for online program models – and any program aimed at adult learners – are affordability and relevance to post-completion outcomes.”

In nearly two years of existence, eVersity has awarded a bachelor’s degree and 15 associate degrees, said Nate Hinkel, director of communications for the UA system. All but one of the associate’s degree graduates arrived at eVersity with more than 60 credit hours — which is typically required for the two-year degree, he said.

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

Mounts originally enrolled at the University of Central Arkansas in 1980 with the goal of earning a degree in computer science. Mounts’ father had died during his senior year of high school, and after three years at UCA he returned home to Pine Bluff to help support his family, he said. He started working and then met the one who was to become his wife.

Around 1987, he enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in hopes of teaching there. At that time, he had a budding family and had another child on the way, he said. Mounts enrolled for two semesters there, although his second was riddled with absences and poor grades due to time in the intensive care unit when his second child suffered health problems, said he declared.

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

The trip happened to Mounts, who at the time had four children, he said. ASU also didn’t have the classes he needed when he could attend. So began his 22-year hiatus, accentuated in 2003 by a debilitating back injury.

He had considered returning to school from time to time, but was deterred by costs and transfers, he said. Many colleges would have done it all over again, he said.

For Mounts, eVersity was convenient. Counselors enrolled him in the right courses, he was able to stay home with his family, and eVersity took most of his credits, leaving 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 I had never finished and it bothered me. I knew I was so close.”

The university has used testimonials and stories from similar students to increase brand awareness and marketing efforts, Moore said.

That’s partly why the university saw its highest applicant pool last month, just after it first opened, he said. It received more than 1,400 applications, and about 190 of those students failed to log into the first free, one-hour credit 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 very hard and aggressively for enrollment when we knew we didn’t have any classes we could enroll them in.”

The eVersity has built 86 courses from the ground up in its five degree areas and only has one more – technology legal issues – to go through. The professor building the course is also teaching for eVersity, and administrators expect that to be done in the coming weeks, Moore said.

The online-only university has also launched employer alliances, where companies will advertise internally or allow eVersity to come and talk to their employees. In return, eVersity will give these employees and their family members a 5% discount. Tuition is $165 per credit hour.

Employers who have signed include Tyson Foods, the City of Bryant and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

Students attending eVersity are on average around 36 years old and are predominantly female. They have about 70 college credit hours and have attended at least two other colleges or universities. About seven in ten receive federal financial aid, which includes the Pell Grant, money typically set aside for low-income students who don’t need to be repaid, and loans.

The university needs about 700 students enrolled after the Engage course for tuition to cover its expenses, Moore said. eVersity is still using its start-up funds, but will need to find a way to build on tuition revenue within a year, he said.

“The challenge with listing is that I don’t think there’s a single silver bullet to this problem,” he said. “It has a lot to do with who we are trying to reach.”

For high schoolers, the next logical step is college. Teens take ACT and SAT college entrance exams, fill out college applications and off they go, Moore said. But someone who is 45 and hasn’t been to school in over a decade may not even think about college.

“At some point you stop watching ads and posts about college and instead watch ads about buying clothes for your kids, how to refinance your mortgage on your house,” he said. . “You just focus on other things and so…we have to get through a huge amount of fog with these people because they’ve given up on the dream of getting a college degree.”

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

“They’re fair, they’re frustrated with admissions processes, they’re frustrated with financial aid processes, they’re frustrated with schools not taking their transfer credits and having the ability to create a green field and to build this university from the ground up…we said we wanted to build a new university that would remove as many warts as possible from the way other people do business,” he said.

“When you ask the question every day, ‘What is in the best interests of students?’, it’s amazing how clear your path becomes.”

Metro on 04/09/2017

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