September/October 2015 Issue
In October 2015, the University of Arkansas System will launch a new, wholly online college named eVersity. Its backers want to raise the educational bar for the state, but can they do that without triggering infighting with UA System campuses that already have their own online presence?
Photography by Cindy Momchilov
Top photo: Michael Moore, Vice president for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas System
What does a campus in the cloud look like?
As it turns out, surprisingly old-fashioned. We’re not talking large, stately buildings of ivy-covered brick, either. Picture something even more old-fashioned. Picture a rambling, beautifully restored 19th century log cabin, in this case the one in the 40-acre wood at the corner of North University and Hawthorne near Little Rock’s Heights neighborhood. It has been an anachronism since Wilie Cammack, who helped develop the surrounding enclave of Cammack Village, kept the secluded home for his family to live in as the city grew around them. His widow donated the site to the University of Arkansas in 1957. Today it is the physical home of the University of Arkansas System’s new online college: eVersity.
The location is all about bending the college cost curve down to earth, according to Michael Moore, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas System. He noted that when Colorado State University created its online campus in 2008, it took out a $10 million loan.
“We think we’re going to be able to do it a little more efficiently than that, because the cost of the technology has come down and we’re not buying a big, expensive vertical space in a flashy office building,” Moore said.
Bonus Online Photos: The Cabin when it was originally donated to the University of Arkansas
“We’re located in a log cabin here on system property. We bought used furniture, stuff from a state surplus store and things of that nature. What that translates to is we’re going to start offering classes at $165 per credit hour, and that makes almost every class we teach $495. That’s a great price compared to the other universities out there that are offering online programs. The [for-profit] University of Phoenix, by comparison, runs between $1,200 and $1,500 per course. We’re going to be a third of that.”
Cost could be a very important consideration to the kind of student eVersity will target: adults who may have some college credit hours but never finished a degree. Moore said that includes about one-tenth of the state’s adult population, some 352,000 people. They represent an opportunity to raise Arkansas’ national ranking, currently 49 out of 50, in terms of the percentage of the population with a college degree. More college degrees would also raise Arkansans’ earning power and potentially attract more employers to the state.
“We have a lot of wonderful universities and colleges across the state,” Moore said. “But if you have a busy, complicated life; if you’re an adult who started college and stopped and live in a smaller community or perhaps even live in one of the larger communities in the state but just have the inability to go to class several days a week at 9 o’clock in the morning, it’s nearly impossible for you to finish a college degree.”
By making it more accessible, Moore hopes to lure those people to eVersity.
“That’s the goal of eVersity, to offer very high-quality degrees that are focused on jobs,” he said. “Courses are taught and developed by University of Arkansas faculty members. You are getting very, very high-quality instruction, and we’re doing it at an affordable rate and in a very accessible way so that adults can do this while they maintain their busy, complicated lives.”
Courses will last six weeks, with a total of seven “semesters” each year. Students will generally take just one course at a time. There will be degree plans in business, criminal justice, health care management, information technology and university studies. Degrees will start out similar to those given by a community college, such as technical certificates and associate degrees.
“By mid-2016 we’ll add some baccalaureate programs,” Moore said. “And the reason we’re staging it that way is because we want to give people that are in, for example, those associate-level programs, an opportunity to finish those and then be ready to transition into a baccalaureate program.”
The first two years will also give eVersity time to get accredited to be able to offer classes to students outside of Arkansas.
“We’ll be ready to go beyond the boundaries of the state with a full head of steam at that time,” Moore said. To get the word out about eVersity, he will be going on a “talking tour” to various organizations around the state. There will also be billboards and, of course, online promotion.
Controversy and Competition
But so far, not everyone has been thrilled by the news. Officials at some physical campuses in the UA System have expressed concern that eVersity may take away enrollment from their own online offerings. Complicating the issue is the fact that eVersity borrowed some $5 million in startup funds from UA System campuses.
Jane Rogers, who sits on the board of trustees of the UA System, believes that some degree of competition is, in fact, likely between eVersity and existing online programs.
“Both UA Fayetteville and [the University of Arkansas at Little Rock] have a highly successful online division at both of those schools,” she said. “And, additionally, many of our two-year schools have successful online courses. In fact, with UALR, a high percentage of their total students are enrolled online.”
This consideration gave Rogers concern regarding the $5 million loan.
“Many of our [UA System] schools are struggling financially, and, just very personally, I didn’t feel like eVersity should be asking them for a loan,” she said. “And so when it came to a vote, I abstained.”
But with the loan now made and eVersity preparing to launch in October 2015, officials at UALR are taking a supportive attitude, referring to eVersity as a “sister institution,” but also touting their own online strength.
“UALR has a lot of history and a lot of experience in online delivery,” said Zulma Toro, UALR provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. “In fact, we have more than 17 years of experience delivering fully online courses. As of today, we are offering over 450 different courses online. And we will continue to do that, and we will continue to expand the opportunities for our students. We offer 11 programs fully online, and, by fall 2017, we will be offering 20 programs fully online.
“It’s not about being afraid of the competition [from eVersity]. It’s about embracing our reality. And the competition is there already. We have been facing this competition in the online arena for many years.”
Toro pointed out an important advantage that being a physical campus brings. UALR can offer face-to-face services when students, even online students, need them. Sherry Rankins-Robertson, associate vice chancellor for student success and online education at UALR, also touted the university’s competitive strengths.
“UALR online is a program within our university that has 11 fully online programs,” Rankins-Robertson said. “And a student in any of those 11 fully online programs has a flat-rate tuition. For undergraduate programs, that’s $260 per credit hour, and for graduate courses that’s $370 per credit hour.”
That’s still not as low as eVersity. But for his part, Moore downplays the idea of a competition. He sees eVersity as something different from the other UA System campuses by focusing on a different type of student.
“The primary difference between us and the other members of the University of Arkansas System is that we are 100 percent focused on the online student,” he said. “And so everything we do is about the online student. We think about how to admit them. We think about how to teach them. We think about how to tutor them, how to academically advise them. Some [other] campuses do provide online degree programs, but their primary mission is not the online student. Their primary mission is the face-to-face student.”
If eVersity is a big success, the physical UA campuses may find that last sentence to be increasingly true going forward.