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Officials at the University of Florida are firing back at what they say is the media incorrectly branding a program intended to increase access to higher education as a “bait and switch.”

This spring, the university invented a new admissions program, known as Pathway to Campus Enrollment, or PaCE, to circumvent its space issues. Students admitted to the university through PaCE complete their first 60 credits through UF Online, the university's online degree-granting arm, avoiding the enrollment bottleneck -- but also missing the campus experience -- that is the university’s face-to-face introductory courses.

The rollout, however, has been marked by confusion and criticism. Students questioned why they were invited to start their studies online when they applied to be residential students. The Washington Post said the students “wound up as part of an admissions experiment.” The Gainesville Sun quipped that the university “made them an offer that most of them could refuse.”

“The bottom line is these were students who wouldn’t have been admitted otherwise,” said Stephen F. Orlando, senior director of media relations.

The university last year launched UF Online after the state legislature instructed it to do so. By offering fully online degrees, the university planned to expand beyond the physical constraints of its Gainesville campus, which receives more applications from qualified students than it has room for. PaCE builds on that initiative. Unlike other transfer students, who have to compete for space, students who complete the PaCE requirements are guaranteed a spot on campus to finish their degrees.

That guarantee only covers roughly 60 majors that are not at capacity, however. While the list includes degrees as varied as architecture, dance, journalism and math, UF’s most popular majors -- biology and engineering, for example -- are not represented. Meanwhile, the political science department has declined to create a fully online degree, leaving another program out of the lineup.

Marta L. Wayne, chair of the UF biology department, said space limitations prevent the department from participating in PaCE and enrolling more students. “We’ve already got plenty,” she said. “Of course we want to serve as many qualified students as possible, but at the moment, we are fully enrolled.”

Added a faculty member in the College of Engineering, “We already have more students than we can put into our program, so there is no need to get students in through the PaCE program.”

W. Andrew McCollough, associate provost for teaching and technology, said the lineup of majors shows PaCE was intended to help underenrolled programs, not boost the most popular ones.

“PaCE was developed to provide access to the University of Florida -- not to increase enrollment,” McCollough said. “The fact that it may do so is incidental.”

'A Good Start'

UF this spring identified 3,118 applicants who had indicated that they would be interested in the majors offered through PaCE and sent them letters explaining the situation. But for many students, the letter marked the first time they had heard about PaCE.

“After a careful and thorough review of your application, we are unable to offer you admission to our campus program as a first-year student,” begins the letter, a template of which was provided to Inside Higher Ed. “However, we are pleased to offer you a space in the UF Pathway to Campus Enrollment (PaCE) program. This unique program is an additional way for freshman applicants with considerable academic potential and demonstrated success to have a direct pathway to the University of Florida.”

The letter then goes on to briefly explain PaCE and its requirements before linking to a website where students can go to learn more. (A copy of the letter is available here.)

The letters were not meant to confuse students and their families, McCollough said, “but we managed to do that pretty well.” He said the idea for PaCE was driven by an ambition to give more students the option “to become a Gator from the get-go.” Going forward, he said, the university needs to be explicit about what admission through PaCE means.

“Confusion happened in part because our rollout was softer than it should have been,” McCollough said. “In retrospect, our enthusiasm for this program should have abated until we had socialized more than we did.”

Of the 3,118 applicants who received the letter, only 256 initially accepted the invitation. The number has since grown to 278. Still, Zina L. Evans, an associate provost and vice president for enrollment management, said the university is “excited” by the reception. She described the students as “early adopters” who are eager to try a new model of higher education.

“The caliber of student that we sent that letter to was going to have a lot of choices and a lot of options with respect to UF and other institutions,” Evans said. “The fact that we have 270-plus students is a good start from our perspective.”

Evans stressed that the university has portrayed PaCE as giving applicants a new way to become residential students. “As you can see from the letter, it’s stated very clearly that we could not accept you into the residential program, however, here’s an option that you could take advantage of, should you choose,” she said.

Evans also said the university did not send out PaCE invitations to students interested in unavailable majors, but it may have reached too broadly.

One student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she turned down her PaCE invitation because she would not be able to study biology with a pre-medical track. The student said she made her decision after an adviser in an email told her taking courses online could “significantly hinder your competitiveness,” adding, “my personal advice would be to consider another school where you can pursue the path you want -- especially if you don't feel comfortable with online learning.”

UF Online does offer a biology degree, but it is a bachelor of arts, unlike the bachelor of science offered to residential students. The degree overview states that it is “not recommended for students seeking admission into professional schools.”

Phil Hill, a higher education consultant, said the case shows the university is “not designing [PaCE] based on student needs.” In a blog post, Hill also questioned how UF Online is going to reach its enrollment goals. According to its business plan, UF Online this year aims to enroll 1,304 students, but beyond that, the university plans to quickly grow its enrollment to 6,029 by the end of 2017. UF Online's success, Hill said, won't depend on the number of students, but rather how many courses each student takes.

McCollough said UF Online has commitments from more than 1,300 students for this fall, meaning the university will not revise its projections. In order to hit next year’s target of 3,698 students, he said, the university needs to bring in more out-of-state students. Those students will also generate more revenue for the university. In-state students pay only $129.18 a credit hour -- a discount mandated by the legislature -- while out-of-state students pay $552.62. On campus, in-state and out-of-state undergraduate students pay about $210.33 and $952.93 a credit hour, respectively.

According to Evans, about 10 percent of the students who accepted their PaCE invitations come from outside of Florida.

“We’re excited about the group of students that we’ve pulled together here,” Evans said. “I see no reason why we cannot continue to move toward the target that we originally set.”

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