The $10,000 Degree and the Growth of Online Education at Fayetteville State University
Fayetteville State University’s $10,000 (or $10K) Degree Pathway—unveiled by Chancellor James A. Anderson in August 2018—launches a new chapter in this North Carolina public HBCU’s expansion of its mission through online education.
Initiated as a pilot with select North Carolina Community Colleges, the $10K Degree Pathway Program enables graduates of partner institutions to earn a bachelor’s degree for a maximum out-of-pocket cost of $10,000. This total price tag includes the cost of the associate degree. The affordability of both FSU and its partners will enable many students to pay much less than $10,000, especially if they are eligible for federal and state grants.
With plans to extend the program to other NC Community Colleges over the next two years, FSU is also exploring options to extend a variation of the program to soldiers, veterans and out-of-state residents.
The impetus for the program comes from several directions, including the strategic priority of the University of North Carolina system to reach low-income and rural students, as well as FSU’s commitment to increase degree attainment as one of 31 members of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Frontier Set.
But the primary aim, for Anderson, is to provide a low-cost, high-quality alternative to for-profit online institutions. He is concerned by the number of students—especially those who are low-income and students of color—who wind up enrolling in for-profits (attracted by their sophisticated marketing) but end up leaving with huge debt and no degree. This is immoral, according to Anderson, and we want to do something about it.
The $10K Degree Pathway builds upon nearly two decades of investment in online education, which has paid off in increased enrollments, degrees awarded, and national accolades.
In five years, the percentage of FSU undergraduates enrolled exclusively in online courses has increased from 14 percent to 24 percent, while the percentage of fully online graduate students has increased from 22 percent to 57 percent over this same period. Of the 1,016 undergraduate degrees awarded in 2017, 30 percent went to online students, up from 12 percent just five years ago.
What’s more, FSU’s online programs have consistently been recognized for quality and affordability. AffordableColleges.com ranks FSU #16 in the country for affordability, and Best Colleges placed FSU #7 nationally among HBCUs. Multiple programs—Criminal Justice, Psychology, Birth Through Kindergarten, and Fire and Emergency Services Administration—have received national recognitions for quality and affordability. Business programs, both undergraduate and the MBA, have been cited frequently as the most affordable online degrees at an institution accredited by AACSB, the highest accrediting body for business schools.
The growth of online education at FSU has been marked by several distinctive features: fidelity to mission, departmental faculty oversight, and commitment to teaching excellence.
FSU’s mission statement affirms its role as “…an institution of opportunity and diversity,” a mission grounded in its legacy of extending the benefits of higher education to student populations often overlooked by majority institutions. In the late 1990s, university leaders saw online learning as a means of serving military students, whose enrollment is often disrupted by deployment, and adult learners, whose family and job responsibilities limit their ability to attend face-to-face classes.
The growth of online programs has enabled FSU to produce one of the most diverse groups of graduates in the US, with more than half of their degrees (54 percent) awarded to African-American students and 65 percent awarded to students of color, 64 percent to Pell eligible students, 81 percent to students from rural NC counties, and 20 percent to soldiers and veterans.
Early on, FSU decided not to establish a separate office to manage online education. Rather, this responsibility was assumed by department faculty. In addition to deflecting the faculty resistance to online learning experienced at some institutions, this approach asked departmental faculty to assess the benefits of expanding online offerings. With the increased scrutiny of program productivity in the wake of the 2008 recession, many departments concluded that expansion of online learning was an effective means of preserving or growing their programs.
Departments that chose to expand online instruction have made sure that any new faculty members they hire are willing and able to teach effectively online.
Finally, departmental management of online programs and courses has promoted consistency in the content and quality of online courses, since the same faculty members normally teach online and face-to-face versions of the same course.
Established in 2008, the Office of Faculty Development (OFD) has supported teaching excellence in online programs. Quality Matters was adopted very early as the framework for online course design, and has been integrated into the certification program required for all online instructors. More than one third of FSU’s approximately 300 faculty have achieved this certification.
In 2017-18, more than half (153) participated in at least one OFD program, with many participating in multiple activities.
The office led the university’s transition to Canvas, a move made in large measure to improve the online learning experience of students, and led the successful application for the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement. Thanks to this agreement, FSU is now able to offer its online programs in 48 states.
But OFD support goes far beyond certification. Our institutional focus, and that of our OFD, is to provide continuous, relevant and current programming to enhance student learning.
Student evaluations of instruction bear out the effectiveness of these efforts. On a scale of one to five, with five as the highest rating, the average student evaluation score has consistently been 4.5. Furthermore, average ratings for online instruction have consistently been equivalent to or higher than those of face-to-face classes.
Even as Anderson expresses his commitment to the further growth of online learning, he also insists that FSU will continue to provide a rich and engaging residential experience for students who seek it. Improving graduation rates and increasing degree attainment among underserved student populations remains a top priority at FSU.
The fact of the matter is that online education is not intended to replace on-campus, face-to-face learning, but is a means for extending high-quality education to students who might not otherwise have this opportunity. This idea is held by our Chancellor and helps to inform our approach to access-oriented programming across the organization.
According to Anderson, FSU’s success now and in the future will be based on our commitment to our mission, faculty oversight, and teaching excellence.
The following individuals provided information for this article: Dr. Perry Massey, Dr. Emily Lenning, Dr. Nicole Lucas, Dr. Stacey Blount, Dr. Bonnie Grohe, and Dr. Marion Gillis-Olion.
Author Perspective: Administrator