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System failure: After missteps, BOG must tread carefully with online education

When the Board of Governors said in January that it was looking to root redundancies out of the UNC system, it should have meant it. Instead, the search for “unnecessary duplication” of degree programs went seven months without producing any concrete ways to cut programs or costs — and without defining “unnecessary program duplication,” which was supposed to form the basis of the review. As the UNC system confronts another year of budget cuts, it must take its efficiency more seriously before it aimlessly treks down another path, this time toward online education.

In January, UNC-system President Thomas Ross set out in the first month of his tenure to push for more efficient university operations. He announced that Jim Woodward, the former chancellor of UNC-Charlotte and N.C. State University, would lead the review of the system’s 2,000 degree programs.

Last week, after seven months of reviewing, Woodward returned without identifying any unnecessarily duplicated programs and without ever having defined what exactly he was looking for. In the post-presentation spin, NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson said he was unsurprised by his predecessor’s findings, or lack thereof, saying they pointed “to some opportunities for collaboration.”

From his non-findings, Woodward said this collaboration could be facilitated by online education, which, in the past week, has quickly grown into BOG’s latest passion project. The General Administration is now looking within its ranks to create a position that would oversee online education — a position BOG members said would have to be filled by someone ready to “walk on water.”

If history is any guide, that person is not within the board’s ranks.

Recent missteps

Last year, the board used former UNC-system President Erskine Bowles’ final year in office to formulate a four-year tuition plan that campuses have taken no time to scrap. The plan reaffirmed the 6.5 percent cap on tuition increases, emphasizing the need to maintain affordable access to public education in North Carolina.

In the first year since the passage of that tuition plan, UNC has discarded the cap, moving to raise in-state tuition by 15.6 percent. To do so, it’s taking advantage of a “catch-up” clause designed to allow system schools to exceed the cap — but remain within the bottom quartile of their peers — after years without tuition hikes.

Because the board has allowed a loose interpretation of this clause, UNC is looking to more than double the 6.5 percent cap with its proposed in-state tuition hikes. It’s little wonder why BOG Chairwoman Hannah Gage told one Daily Tar Heel reporter that, “at the time, we kind of knew that there was a strong possibility that this would open the door wider than we wanted to open it.”

Now, students are paying the price for that misstep, which Gage said many campuses have interpreted “as encouragement.”

Online education

The board must ensure that its talk about online education doesn’t turn into just that — talk.

That action must be coupled with a clear statement at the beginning of what kind of online programming the system wants to incorporate into its curriculum. It must consider the drawbacks of online classes: They don’t allow for the quality of collaboration found through face-to-face discussion in small classes. Online, professors can’t spend as much time per student with larger class sizes.

They can also be more expensive than courses on campus.

These considerations can help avoid the missteps of the past before it becomes too late and too costly to all the system’s stakeholders.

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