Reasserting the Vision of the Land-Grant University with Employer PathwaysEvangeline Tsibris Cummings | Assistant Provost and Director of UF Online, University of Florida
Here at the University of Florida, we have worked hard to launch and rapidly expand a high-quality academic program that serves academically strong learners who are seeking a more versatile path towards a degree. UF Online, our fully online undergraduate experience, turns five years old in January 2019, and we continue to see growing interest and enrollment from academically focused students who are not seeking a full-time, residential campus experience but who are eager to earn a valuable bachelor’s degree. I am proud of the work this University and its faculty have done to usher in UF Online’s 20 online bachelor’s pathways that serve learners regardless of their home location. Today, the University of Florida is proof that a research university, ranked in the top ten nationally among public universities, can offer alternate pathways to a bachelor’s degree—and, in doing so, fulfill its land grant mission in new ways.
More importantly, we’re not just admitting and enrolling students—we’re seeing them complete.
1,000 students have graduated from UF Online, and that number is growing each semester. Furthermore, UF Online is incredibly affordable for Florida residents. To date, we estimate that we’ve saved Florida residents over $14 million in tuition thanks to the State of Florida’s ongoing investment to ensure a $112 per-credit hour model for all Floridians enrolled via UF Online. Put plainly, it is indeed possible for a top ten public land-grant university to offer an online pathway to a bachelor’s degree, while keeping tuition affordable and without compromising quality or selectivity.
But we want to do so much more.
Our newly-released UF Online Annual Report shows how far we’ve come, and our UF Online 2019-2024 Business Plan outlines what we aim to undertake over the next five years to maintain this selective, yet affordable, model. We are on track to realizing our vision of being “a public land-grant university as a hub of learning, accessible from anywhere in the world, bridging learners, educators, and researchers over a lifetime of learning and discovery.”
Currently, our bridges extend far beyond our Gainesville campus. We are continuing to build a thriving UF digital learning community by connecting students around the world to their peers, UF faculty, academic advisors and more. It’s fair to say that we have learned a lot over the first five-year chapter about how to transform learning pathways, programs and services to best recruit and serve the needs of our online Gators. We will continue to take risks, try new things, and improve our approach, all in the best interests of our mission and students. It’s a fascinating time to serve learners in the digital landscape of higher education.
Extending Bridges Not Just to Students but to Their Employers
Starting in 2017, we realized that it was time to think beyond place, and look past “in-state” and “out-of-state” student distinctions. It was time to embrace the fact that our students’ lives are not succinctly summarized by their home address and their academic application. Students looking to earn a degree lead busy, valuable lives, and often blend school, family and service within communities or their careers. Their needs and goals are unique, and no longer fit antiquated molds. It was time, therefore, to not only connect with students where they live, but also where they work.
In 2018, we formally launched the UF Online Employer Pathways Program, an important initiative that seeks to serve students in partnership with their employers. It took 18 months to broker and negotiate the deal between UF Online and Guild Education, but in May 2018, we announced our initial pilot to work with Guild and welcomed applications nationwide from employees of Walmart and Discover Financial Services. In September 2018, we announced a new relationship with The Walt Disney Company, which will be the third employer to join the UF Online Employer Pathways Program.
With these new partnerships forged, we now begin our next chapter. Enrollments will be small at first, but there’s more to it than recruitment. The UF Online Employer Pathways Program is a new set of pathways, connecting a large land-grant university with major, national companies, to learn from and with one another on how best to serve, skill and fortify the American workforce of the 21st century.
UF Online and the University of Florida will benefit from this new program. It will amplify our ability to learn and improve our pathways by working in close partnership with employers. Best of all, by connecting universities and employers in undergraduate education cooperatives of this kind, future student workers will reap the greatest reward. They will come out of the program with enhanced skills and valuable learning experiences—and an improved quality of life, as they complete a degree with both a supportive university and a receptive employer at their side.
In 2019 and beyond, it is time to embrace the fact that our students have clear academic needs and goals, but they also lead busy, valuable lives. They are often employed, and, like all of us, seek a daily balance that includes family, friends and other commitments. To provide them with a modern-day undergraduate experience that gives them the skills they need to reach their goals over their lifetime, we must be flexible, versatile and high-value, but we also must work in close partnership with where they spend the most of their time: their working environment.
UF Online was thrilled to forge connections directly with major employers, with the assistance of Guild Education. Kicking off with our partners at Walmart, Discover Financial Services and The Walt Disney Company, the UF Online Employer Pathways Program has had an amazing start.
Here’s to the future!
Author Perspective: Administrator