Like thousands of high school seniors across the state, Jesse Rascon nervously awaited a decision from the University of Florida, the state’s flagship school. The answer left him perplexed.
“I opened up the notification on the website, and it didn’t say congratulations, but it also didn’t say we can’t offer you admission. So I was kind of like — what is this?” he said.
A senior in the International Baccalaureate program at John A. Ferguson High in Kendall, Jesse had just been offered admission to UF’s new Pathway to Campus Enrollment program.
To its roughly 30,500 applicants this year, UF offered traditional enrollment to about 13,000. But it offered some 3,100 students a different way to get a UF degree: PaCE, a program where students must earn at least 60 credits — the equivalent of two years — online before being allowed to enroll as traditional UF students. PaCE students can accelerate the process by using IB, AP or Dual Enrollment courses toward those credits, but they must spend at least their freshman year in PaCE and earn 15 credit hours online.
So far the pitch hasn’t been very successful — only about 50 have accepted the PaCE offer, according to UF. Compare that to the 4,000 students who’ve accepted UF admission under the traditional route. The deadline to enroll is May 1; many families weigh competing financial aid offers and other economic issues before making a final decision.
Experts say PaCE appears to be the first time a major university is making admission contingent on students spending a substantial amount of time taking online classes designed and graded by university faculty.
“We want to be able to provide more opportunities for students to enroll to the University of Florida. There are many students that we have to turn away each year,” said UF director of freshman and international admissions Andrea Felder. “This is just another way to provide access to these students.”
PaCE students will have access to university faculty and advisers, Felder said.
PaCE students pay less than traditional students — 75 percent of tuition, and none of the ancillary fees tied to housing and student activities. But that means they don’t get automatic access to student spaces and events like football games, the student rec center and the campus shuttle.
Nor can they live in university dorms. PaCE students are encouraged to move to Gainesville for a collegiate experience (Jesse’s financial aid package from UF included loans for housing), but they must make housing arrangements separately from the university.
Peter Ratzan, the owner of College Funding Specialists, a Weston-based consulting firm that helps families gain admission and pay for college, said he is strongly advising his clients not to accept the PaCE offer.
For Ratzan, PaCE is one of many initiatives by the university to increase revenues from tuition without having to spend a proportional amount back on students.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing,’’ Ratzan said. “In my opinion it’s about maximizing revenue and maximizing capacity. Like a lot of schools, it’s driven by the bottom line.’’
College officials insist the motivation for PaCE was not financial.
“This is not a money-making venture. The PaCE students will bring in marginal extra money. This is about providing access to UF for students we otherwise would not have been able to admit,” UF provost Joe Glover said. “It’s also our hope that once these students are exposed to online education, they may like it and continue to do it. If they don’t, they still have the option of becoming residential students after they complete the requirements.”
While PaCE is a first of its kind, administrators and legislators across the country have been pushing for students to spend more time online at the K-12 and post-secondary level.
That enthusiasm for online education was bolstered in 2009 by a U.S. Department of Education report that synthesized available research and concluded that online learning might actually be more effective than face-to-face instruction. But critics like Shanna Smith Jaggars, the assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, argued in a counter-analysis that the report included too many studies that looked at hybrid and not fully online classes, and that the studied populations — typically older and well prepared – weren’t representative of college students in general.
“Our research shows that at least among community college students… students do not do as well in an online course as when they take a course face-to-face,” Jaggars said.
That’s because the extra autonomy and a lack of traditional support — from advisers, teachers and fellow students — in online classes can make it hard to stay on track.
“Trying to take an entirely online curriculum is very challenging, and requires a lot of time management and a lot of metacognitive skills that students coming right out of high school don’t have,” she said. “If these students really wanted to go to this university and this is the only way they could do it, maybe it’s good that they have that chance. But they should be informed about how difficult it’s going to be.”
That’s exactly the worry that Jesse’s mother, Ana Alaez, has about PaCE.
“I was excited for my son; he really wanted to go to that school,” Alaez said. “But I’m not sure, even though he’s a good student and he gets good grades, how in that first crucial year the Internet program might affect him. Because you have to be very disciplined to keep track with those classes.”
Jesse worries about that too. Despite doing well in the rigorous IB program while participating in several sports teams, he got a B in personal fitness, his only online course.
“Imagine when you get into third level biology or history. You would want a teacher there guiding you through the process. Or even other classmates that are going through the same thing,” he said. “That normal college life, where you study with friends in groups. I don’t know if that would be easily attainable with this program.”
Jaggars’ research has also shown that populations less likely to do well in college — minority students, lower income students or first-generation college students, for example — are further impacted by online learning.
“For many students, especially low-income students or students that are the first in their families to attend college, the support that they get on campus is really important for helping them stay on track,” Jaggars said.
Ultimately, Jaggars said it it’ll be up to individual students to gauge what’s best for them — something they might not be equipped to do.
“This puts a lot of responsibility on the student to make a decision about the pros and cons of two options that they can’t really get good information on,” she said. “There’s no way for a student to make a really rational decision about whether it’s better for them to take their first two years online at a prestigious university or whether it’s better for them to go to a less prestigious university for the first two years and then try to transfer. Because there’s no research that can definitely tell them which of these two options is going to be better for them.”
As for Jesse, he’s waiting on Boston College to let him know what kind of financial aid package the school can offer him and weighing attending Florida International University, where he could could come out ahead financially if Bright Futures comes through. But he also hasn’t yet turned down UF’s offer.
“Definitely I wasn’t happy, I’d rather have full admission, but at the same time, it’s still an opportunity,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Julie K. Brown contributed to this report.