By Steve Brawner
More than 350,000 Arkansans have taken some college classes but do not have a degree. That’s a business opportunity for Arkansas colleges and universities. Meanwhile, 95 out-of-state, online higher education providers offer programs to Arkansas students that have been approved by the Department of Higher Education, and that number is growing. For Arkansas colleges and universities, that’s a market threat.
How do service providers respond to opportunities and threats in a free market economy? Adapt or die.
Dr. Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System, told the House and Senate Education Committees Monday how his system is adapting. The eVersity program will offer degrees starting this fall that are designed to reach older Arkansans who need employment skills but not the on-campus college experience. It’s meant to fill jobs that are available right now. The approach will be systemwide and funded entirely through student tuitions.
The courses are being designed to be cheaper and more convenient than traditional on-campus classes so a mom with three kids can go back to school without leaving home. Semesters will last six weeks, and there will be eight of them a year so that older students can take one course at a time and still finish in five years. Billing will be done monthly rather than in lump sums. Credit hours will be offered to students with relevant work experience. Bobbitt said a student will be able to earn a degree from home in five years at a cost of $18,000 – maybe significantly less.
Bobbitt acknowledged that his profession hasn’t changed all that much in 1,000 years, but changes are coming now. Online college-level chemistry course experiments can be done at home with the professor checking the results on YouTube. Courses are being designed to take advantage of free online material instead of textbooks.
Offering online courses is nothing new, of course. Arkansas State’s online MBA program was ranked 14th in the country by U.S. News and World Report, while Harding University students can earn an online MBA. Arkansas Tech’s eTech program offers several associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
eVersity’s primary market is older, nontraditional students – not students who go to college straight from high school. But those students face challenges of their own. Student debt nationally is about $1 trillion, and far too many college graduates don’t have much to show for that debt but a job at Starbuck’s. If Arkansas colleges don’t provide sufficient value, more students will do what consumers always do – purchase what they need (job skills) at a cheaper price elsewhere.
And they do have choices. As Bobbitt explained, 95 out-of-state providers deliver more than 1,200 degree programs and credentials in Arkansas. Students can earn degrees from for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix, public universities like the University of Missouri, and private schools like Liberty University. Those schools are educating students that might have chosen Arkansas institutions, which means those institutions have to step up their games, which is good for everybody. Plus, offering online courses gives Arkansas schools a chance to reach a potential worldwide marketplace.
Interviewed in a Capitol hallway after his presentation to legislators, Bobbitt said that faculty acceptance of the new online model has varied from professor to professor, but as a rule, “They understand that we don’t want to be Kodak.” That’s a reference to the film manufacturer and developer that failed to respond to digital photography and ended up declaring for bankruptcy.
Bobbitt had used another metaphor speaking to legislators earlier. He said the UA System is trying to operate like a fast-moving yacht, not the Titanic.
It must, as must other Arkansas colleges and universities. There are many ways for Arkansas students to get across the ocean these days, and many of them don’t require leaving home.