UA to Offer Low-cost Degrees

Growing demand and streamlined programs are the heart of a new model for delivering a college education.
Feb. 17, 2010

University of Arizona officials are banking on education as an important facet of the state's future population and are making plans to develop new business models to more time-bound and place-bound students.

Those plans may include expanding degree programs beyond the main campus in Tucson and into community colleges and other centers primarily in the southern half of Arizona.

It also means students will have options for earning degrees that will cost significantly less than they would spend by attending classes exclusively on the main campus, and still come away with a high-quality education.

In 2008, the UA began the Pathways Initiative to create processes that might allow the UA to increase enrollment by an additional 14,000 students by the year 2020. Two-thirds of those new students would complete their course work outside the main campus, either in collaboration with community college partners or facilities that are working in partnership with the University.

UA Outreach is at the heart of this initiative. It has aggregated and realigned under its banner the distributed programs offered by both UA South, and through Outreach College, including evening and weekend programs, online learning and learning centers.

The model calls for leasing off-campus space as needed, which is generally a less-costly option than paying for buildings the University would own outright. It also incorporates academically rigorous programs offered at the UA and UA South to give students the kinds of skills employers are seeking.

Mike Proctor, the UA vice provost for outreach and global initiatives, said that with adequate collaboration with the main campus, this model can deliver degree programs at a lower cost of instruction, a lower level of state support per student and at a lower tuition level.

Since consolidating programs under Outreach, UA evening and weekend enrollment has more than tripled and will top 6,000 students this year. Distance enrollment has nearly doubled (590 to 910), and UA South has grown from 320 to 499 full-time equivalent students.

Consolidating programs also allowed Outreach to restructure its costs. Combined with enrollment increases, UA South has reduced the yearly per-FTE student expenditure from $18,000 to less than $10,000. As enrollment rises, costs drop, but at a certain point, additional investment is required. Proctor said the model is built to feed that revenue back into faculty and programs. 

"We're one of the most efficient universities anywhere in terms of total cost to the degree, total state expenditure per FTE student, we're incredibly accessible. We've maintained quality and accessibility despite innumerable challenges. That's something really special," Proctor said.

"A lot of those are main campus students picking up that one course they need, but regardless, it's a reflection of the demand for those courses and demand for availability of those seats," Proctor said.

To seed the models, Outreach also was able to use money from the Technology and Research Initiative Fund, or TRIF, to focus on three primary disciplinary areas that help leverage those investments and create programs in critical areas. One is teacher education to address the shortage of teachers in Arizona.

Another is commerce, entrepreneurship and retailing, areas that are at the heart of both the small-business economy and are just as valuable in moving high-tech products from the laboratory to market.

The third is information sciences, especially as they relate to regional economies. Proctor said the entire suite of upper-division courses in the UA computer science department is moving online to foster those programs.

In addition, within these programs the UA has invested primarily in creating upper division and graduate programs that reflect the University's academic strengths, and will rely on community colleges to offer lower-division courses.

The UA hopes to establish formal relationships with virtually all of the community colleges in the region: Pima, Eastern Arizona, Arizona Western, Central Arizona, Cochise and the Maricopa County system. For example, a number of UA South baccalaureate programs are available entirely at the Pima Community College East campus, with plans to expand to the West and Desert Vista campuses.

The UA and Pima have worked closely to link offerings and avoid articulation problems that occur when students transfer from one school to the other.

You try to eliminate as much as possible the concept of ‘transfer,' and look at it instead as an integrated four-year degree," Proctor said. The two schools share advisers and are in a 10-year planning process that will guide the expansion of these programs across the district.

"Part of what makes this model work is that we look at the bottom line. You can't make it work everywhere and for all degrees," Proctor said. "It's going to be a very structured and thoughtful modeling of what can be rolled out, where and over what timeline.

Other programs are underway or being planned.

Collaborations with the Defense Department at Fort Huachuca already have led to for-credit certificate programs in management information systems and national security.

The UA also has developed a certificate in geographic information systems, or GIS.

The UA, UA South and Cochise College have expanded into Nogales, offering classes at the old high school as the UA Santa Cruz, and will graduate its first student at the end of the semester. Cochise College and UA South are also expanding programs in Sierra Vista and Douglas.

Other expansion plans include collaborations with Central Arizona College, mining engineering at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, engineering linkages with Arizona Western College in Yuma and discussions of critical programs to be based in Maricopa County.

Proctor said UA programs such as health care or government and public policy may eventually find their way into these offerings as well.

But, he said, everything is dependent on state support in addition to the core support required to sustain the main campus. The entire outreach model is contingent on an adequate level of state support for two reasons.

"Because we're relying on the efficiency of the main campus to make this happen, this is not a cold start. We are relying on efficient, high-demand programs to reach the audiences that need to be served. If we don't have adequate resources for those programs, nothing happens. 

"And to be able to do this out at the community college level, or in some other distributed fashion, requires a level of state support per FTE that is less than we're getting now – so this is a good deal for the Legislature. But if that support is not forthcoming, it's just not going to happen.

"This is all driven by our faculty," Proctor said. "Outreach College doesn't generate its own credit content. Everything we do has to come through the main campus. It's really about connecting our faculty to a broader set of audiences."