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Digital dividends

This school proves that universities can be bigger and better

One of my fondest memories of college is attending classes I hadn’t even signed up for (and not attending the ones I had!). So, when I was asked if I wanted to sit in on an anthropology course during my recent visit to University of Central Florida, how could I refuse?

I took a seat in the back of Dr. Beatriz Reyes-Foster’s Anthropology 3610 course, “Language and Culture,” and was immediately swept up in a lively discussion about French philosopher Michel Foucault’s social theory of panopticism. It’s always thrilling to be back in a classroom—and it makes me wish I could be a college student all over again.

If that wish were ever to come true, the college experience would look very different—and better—at an innovative institution like UCF. I’m not talking about changes like amazing science labs, better dorm food, or skateboard racks for students who cruise to classes. What’s most impressive about UCF is how it’s found a way to better serve its growing population of students, without compromising on quality or cost.

Historically, that’s been an impossible feat. Conventional wisdom in higher education dictates that bigger is not better. If an institution wants to boost academic achievement, it needs to be more selective and admit fewer students. Likewise, institutions that accept more students expect to experience an inevitable decline in graduation rates and academic achievement.

UCF is challenging this storyline by proving that a university can have it all: a large, diverse student population, high standards, and affordable tuition. Since 1992, UCF has managed to triple the size of its student body to 66,000 students while at the same time reducing costs, boosting its graduation rate, and expanding access for low-income and first-generation students. At a time of spiraling higher education costs, UCF is one of the most affordable public four-year institutions in the country at $6,368 per year for in-state residents. The national average for in-state tuition at public universities is $8,804.

A key reason for UCF’s success is its focus on digital learning, which has allowed the university to meet the needs of its expanding student population and keep tuition costs low. About 80 percent of UCF students take at least one online course—compared with the national average of about 30 percent.

Online learning is popular at UCF, just as it is on other campuses, because it offers students more flexibility versus traditional face-to-face classes. With more and more college students working full-time and having families, online courses give students a way to balance their studies with work and life demands. From the university’s perspective, online courses allow the institution to increase the size of its student population without the expense of constructing more classrooms. Because of the widespread popularity of digital learning, UCF can serve its 66,000 students on a campus designed for just 40,000 students, saving the university $200 million in capital costs for buildings that would be needed to support those additional students.

What sets UCF apart from other institutions, however, is how it’s invested in online learning, making it a central part of academic life. UCF’s Center for Distributed Learning has a 90-person team that provides compulsory training for faculty on how to design and teach online courses. After completing the training, faculty team up with the center’s instructional designers to convert their face-to-face courses into effective online learning experiences.

The online learning tools the university has developed have helped make teaching and learning smarter. One of UCF’s most successful approaches, for example, allows faculty to combine the best of traditional learning with online classes. These mixed-mode classes are some of the most popular classes on campus among students and faculty.

Dr. Reyes-Foster’s anthropology course, for example, meets three times per week—twice in a traditional face-to-face class setting, like the one I attended—and once online. “Some students learn better in online settings. Some students learn better in face to face settings. And having more options available to them really gives them the best opportunity to do well in college,” Dr. Reyes-Foster said.

A growing body of evidence suggests that students who take mixed-mode classes perform better than those learning in face-to-face settings and are less likely to drop the courses. UCF students who take at least 40 percent of their courses online complete their degrees an average of four months faster than other students, saving the students both time and money.

While my visit to UCF left me a little nostalgic about my college years, I left even more excited about what the innovations in digital learning could mean for today’s college students and our country. As higher education costs rise, the education gap is growing between those from low-income backgrounds and the rest of the population. This trend means that the poorest Americans won’t experience the economic benefits of a college degree. It also leaves our country with fewer college graduates at a time when our economy needs more college-educated workers than ever before. Solving this challenge will require our higher education institutions to expand access to students of all economic backgrounds and provide them a high-quality, affordable education. In other words, our colleges and universities need to be bigger and better. UCF has been a pioneer in showing how that can be done. I hope other colleges and universities will learn from its success.

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