photo by Gavin Baker
As anyone who knows a college-bound high school senior is doubtless aware, we are fast approaching May 1 - National Decision Day.
Some early-decision students have known where they are going for months. Others, probably those who got into their first-pick schools at prices they were willing to pay, said yes as soon as they received their so-called “fat envelopes.” But not every student’s decision is so easy. A lot of variables, including a school’s reputation, location and financial aid offer, can make weighing acceptances a tricky proposition.
For some University of Florida applicants, a new program may further complicate those decisions.
This year, the University of Florida admitted 13,667 of the 30,800 applicants vying for places in its incoming freshman class. But it also extended 3,118 invitations to its Pathway to Campus Enrollment, or PaCE, program.
Some students and parents were nonplussed by the offer to enroll in a program they knew nothing about. Timothy Austin, who received one of the invitations, told the Orlando Sentinel that he thought he’d simply been rejected at first. “I saw PaCE program, I thought it was some kind of BS thing,” he said. Jesse Rascon, another student invited to the PaCE program, had a similar reaction, he told the Miami Herald. A parent posted on the College Confidential forums asking, “Does anyone know anything about this?”
The confusion is understandable, given that PaCE is brand new. The program allows the university to admit more students than it would otherwise have space to accommodate. Participants in the PaCE program will be required to take two years’ worth of credits online, which can be augmented by credits from Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and courses they might take at other Florida state-supported campuses. After completing the required number of credits, students are guaranteed a place on the UF residential campus to complete their degrees.
In the meantime, students must still pay tuition, though it is discounted by roughly 25 percent while the student learns online. PaCE students also don’t pay resident-student activities fees though, in turn, they do not have access to services based upon such fees, such as student athletic tickets and the campus health care center. The university encourages PaCE students to move to Gainesville anyway, despite not providing dorm space for them, emphasizing that the students are eligible to use UF’s libraries and join student organizations.
In essence, PaCE is to Florida’s highly regarded flagship campus (incidentally, a campus where my firm has recruited several talented staff members from an excellent business program) what a farm system is to a major league sports team.
So far the program seems to be a hard sell for graduating seniors, who thought that getting accepted to the University of Florida would mean actually, you know, going to college. Yet in the long run, UF can probably leverage its brand name and its on-campus assets to reach the widest possible audience by offering some students a delayed entry to campus life.
Despite some dissembling, the PaCE program is clearly driven by economics - and by a mandate from none other than Florida’s Legislature, which told the university three years ago to beef up its online offerings. The new initiative is separate from, but interacts with, the UF Online program, which is an online-only sequence that does not involve an eventual relocation to the campus. If any PaCE students really enjoy online learning, they do have the option to complete their degree entirely through UF Online, though it remains to be seen how many students will be willing to forego a traditional campus experience altogether. And UF Online currently only offers 11 majors; the other 50 or so majors offered to PaCE students can only be finished in a traditional program.
The PaCE program is part of a trend gathering momentum in which big-name colleges like Yale and Penn State, and now UF, are extending their brands. This trend probably comes at the expense of second-tier campuses that are already struggling to fill their freshman classes. Given the economics involved, it is likely one more blow to the middle-tier schools struggling to compete with more prestigious competitors at the top and cheaper competitors below. But it may prove a way to help fill the gap between demand for high-quality degrees and the supply of instructors and campus resources needed to fulfill it.
Online extension programs could be viewed as a raw deal for incoming freshmen who are told they are not quite ready for prime time but are guaranteed a late-season call-up once some players on the freshman-class roster move on to other teams - in academia, they call it transferring - or when others drop out. No one is thrilled to be a second choice, after all. Students who applied to UF presumably hoped to secure a spot on campus right away. It will be up the students who received a PaCE offer to decide whether it is worth the challenges of online study for a year or two to get there eventually, or if they would rather look elsewhere instead.
But while it may be a disappointment, PaCE is not a negative for students overall. Though most may choose an on-campus start elsewhere, some will doubtless opt for this alternate path to their school of choice. While they study online, they may also look for paying jobs, which could give them a leg up on work experience compared to the rest of their eventual college-graduating peers. They’ll be able to save money by living at home if they choose; the 25 percent tuition reduction for one or two years is not irrelevant, either. And if students eventually want to go to another school, even a student who only makes the Gators’ minor-league farm club would be a star on a lot of other campuses.
Look for more of this sort of flexible innovation in the years to come. It has taken a long time, and the process is imperfect, but market forces are starting to make their mark on higher education.