One There, Seven Here

November 5, 2013

Frostburg State University will this spring give new students the option of starting their degree online. The Freshman Choice Program, meant to persuade students to study for four years at the university, makes its case by letting students stay at home a semester longer.

Unlike other colleges that have used online platforms as a method to rapidly scale their size, Frostburg State’s Freshman Choice Program, being piloted next spring, comes with some specific self-imposed limitations. While online, the program is ultimately intended to benefit -- and generate -- residential students.

Some universities charge online students as little as 40 percent of the cost of residential tuition, but Frostburg State keeps the rate uniform. Students who opt for a semester online will pay just as much for tuition as on-campus students, but will shave about $5,000 off the bottom line by not paying for room and board and various fees for the semester at home. Other institutions offer online degrees to circumvent capacity issues and virtually enroll tens of thousands more students, but Frostburg State has no such plans. The spring pilot is aiming for 15 to 25 participating students, and university officials said the program won't offer fully online degrees in the future.

“We’re doing this to give broader access to the university,” said John Bowman, Frostburg State’s vice provost. “We think there are freshman students or prospective freshman students who for one reason or the other cannot begin their college career out at Frostburg by actually attending the campus.”

These students, Bowman said, could be transitioning out of the armed forces. They could be working to afford their education. They could tending to family members.

“It could be someone who wants to be a residential student that just maybe can’t make it up that first semester for whatever reason,” Bowman said. “Why not give that student an opportunity to take some courses with us?”

But in addition to making the first semester more flexible, faculty members and administrators also acknowledged that Frostburg State’s location is a contributing factor. Most of the institutions in the University System of Maryland are clustered along the I-95 Baltimore-Washington corridor, making Frostburg State the only four-year institution west of Washington, D.C. Frostburg lies in Maryland’s rural panhandle, and the university boosts the town’s population of about 8,800 by more than 5,000.

“One of the minuses of FSU is our location,” said Michael Murtagh, associate professor of psychology and Faculty Senate chair. “I think it’s probably a little bit helpful if we have that initial online outreach to help people see the high quality of education we offer.”

The university has for more than five years invited students to participate in the Summer Online Freshman Initiative, known as SOFI, where they can take an online course in the six weeks leading up to their first semester. Those courses have generally attracted highly motivated students who are eager to get started on their studies, faculty members said. Most of the courses in the Freshman Choice Program have been adapted from SOFI; students can choose from a menu of seven -- many of them staples in first-semester schedules, including introductory courses in computer science, sociology and pre-algebra mathematics.

Both the SOFI courses and those offered through the Freshman Choice Program are mostly asynchronous, meaning students are not required to watch a lecture at a specific time. The content is curated by Frostburg State faculty members, however, which will let students start to get to know their professors. The courses are hosted on the learning management platform Blackboard Learn. A spokesman for Blackboard did not identify any other institutions that offer similar programs.

By extending the ideas behind the summer program to cover an entire semester, the Freshman Choice Program represents Frostburg State’s latest effort to smooth the transition from high school to higher education. The university will host one or two sessions on campus during the semester to welcome online students and prepare them for residential life.

The program is also an attempt to discourage students from taking a gap year or enrolling in a community college and instead head straight for college.

“What if we can offer something to students who want to come here but want to save some money -- or maybe they just don’t have the finances to stay on campus?” said Michael B. Flinn, an assistant professor of computer science who will teach one of the spring courses. “This is a way to get them here and help them out for at least one semester. What if we could do it for a year? That might even be neat.”

One year may be the upper limit for the program, however. Bowman said he has not seen any proposals for new online programs, and Murtagh called face-to-face instruction Frostburg State’s “prime essence.”

“I think we need to find a way to help the student if they want to attend something, but they don’t want to go purely the online route,” Flinn said. “I think there are a lot of people like that. What if they just want to test out the waters a little? Personally I think it’s a great way to bridge that gap.”

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