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The University of Pennsylvania announced Tuesday that it plans to launch a completely new, online bachelor's degree in applied arts and sciences.

The announcement makes Penn one of the first Ivy League institutions to offer an almost fully online degree at the undergraduate level, rather than at the graduate level like many other universities.

Nora Lewis, vice dean of professional and liberal education for the university's College of Arts and Sciences, said administrators created the online degree program to bring Penn’s liberal arts education to a wider audience of working adults.

She said Penn has offered working adults and other nontraditional students the opportunity to earn a bachelor of arts degree through on-campus weekend and evening classes for more than 100 years. But that meant the degree was limited to students who lived nearby or could travel to Philadelphia. The weekend and evening on-campus B.A. program will be phased out and replaced by the new B.A.A.S. online degree program, which is scheduled to start in fall 2019.

"The goal of this new platform is to make an Arts and Sciences education more accessible, flexible and affordable for working adults,” Lewis said.

The university already offers several online master’s degrees, and the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, a continuing education division of the School of Arts and Sciences, also offers numerous online courses and certificates. The new B.A.A.S. program will be administered by the College of Liberal and Professional Studies.

Rather than work with a corporate partner, as Penn did for its recently announced online master's in computer science (Coursera), Lewis said Penn administrators chose to develop the B.A.A.S. degree in-house. The university did so using its existing expertise in online education and consulting with two advisory boards -- one made up of faculty members and the other of regional, national and global employers. Some student services that will be offered in the new program, such as 24-7 tutoring, have been outsourced to third parties, said Lewis.

The new online degree will be significantly cheaper than on-campus options, said Lewis. Currently, nontraditional students in the flexible bachelor of arts program, which enrolls between 400 and 500 students, pay tuition of $3,212 per course. Students enrolling in the new online program will pay $2,250 per course -- a savings of almost $1,000 per course. Online students won’t be eligible for Penn’s generous “all-grant” financial aid package but will have access to federal financial aid and merit-based scholarships, Lewis said.

Lewis hopes the B.A.A.S. degree will attract local, regional, national and international students, but she says the university isn’t expecting the same number of students as say, a “blockbuster” master’s degree in cybersecurity might draw. Lewis expects enrollment to match the on-campus program, which has around 500 students, and is hopeful it will quickly increase to more than 1,000. She anticipates most students will be working adults over age 25.

Caroline Levander, vice president for strategic initiatives and digital education at Rice University, described Penn’s new program as a “wonderful thing” that will enable more students to receive an elite liberal arts education. Levander said she was particularly pleased that Penn’s announcement about the degree included positive comments from faculty members.

“Getting so many faculty behind the idea of an online bachelor’s degree is a substantial achievement,” she said.

Though Penn has touted its online bachelor’s degree as unique among Ivy League institutions, Levander pointed out that Harvard’s Extension School also offers a mixed online and on-campus bachelor of liberal arts degree. But Harvard's program is “really about degree completion” rather than being open to students who may not previously have studied at a university.

Lewis said she and her colleagues considered making the Penn degree fully online but decided to include some compulsory on-campus activities for durations of three to four days, to ensure that students “feel connected to the campus” and “connect with their cohort.”

She said the online courses will be a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous instruction to enable students in different time zones to participate, said Lewis. As part of their degree, students will be required to create an eportfolio of reports and projects that will help them demonstrate to employers what they have learned.

Currently students enrolling in the B.A.A.S. degree will have a choice of four concentrations, including creative studies; literature, culture and tradition; organizational studies; and physical and life sciences. More concentrations and courses are in development, said Lewis.

Phil Hill, a partner at MindWires Consulting and co-publisher of the e-Literate blog, said that although Penn is not the first selective institution to offer an online bachelor’s degree, “I do think it’s significant.”

“Now that Penn has an online bachelor’s program, it’s much more likely that other high-end schools will seriously consider offering them, too,” he said.

Michael Feldstein, Hill’s business partner, suggested that the announcement marked a shift in the mind-set of elite institutions toward online undergraduate degrees.

“Until fairly recently, the rule with undergraduate online programs has been that the likelihood of a school offering such a program was inversely proportional to the popularity of its football team or the quality of its cafeteria food,” said Feldstein. “In other words, schools that present a high-quality on-campus experience as part of their value proposition are less likely to find online education attractive. But there has been increasing demand in recent years for less expensive degrees that still carry the pedigree of a top-tier school.”

The Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, has a very successful and affordable online master’s degree, said Feldstein. “I haven’t seen this trend spread to undergraduate education before now, but it’s not surprising to see that beginning to happen.”

In the past, elite colleges have dabbled with online undergraduate degrees through initiatives such as online education provider 2U’s Semester Online -- where students at top-tier universities could take classes from other top-tier universities online. That effort failed, in part because universities couldn’t agree on shared standards, said Hill. But he noted that attitudes toward online learning, particularly from faculty members, have become somewhat more positive in the last few years.

Richard Garrett, chief research officer at research and advisory firm Eduventures, agreed that Penn’s online degree is “unusual” for an elite institution. Although launching online degree programs at the bachelor level is more challenging than a master's program is because undergraduate programs are longer and require more courses, there are several online liberal arts bachelor's programs out there -- though few offered by institutions as elite as Penn.

“I think it’s not surprising that Penn would launch a bachelor’s in liberal arts -- it reflects the mission of their continuing and professional education division and shows a willingness to make themselves a little bit more accessible,” said Garrett.

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