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The University of California system has never had any fully online undergraduate degree programs at any of its 10 campuses. But a loophole existed in which a student or department could have crafted—either inadvertently or intentionally—a stealth, fully online undergraduate degree through individually approved online courses.

That loophole was closed this month when the University of California Academic Senate approved Senate Regulations 610 and 630, which instituted an undergraduate residency requirement. Students must now earn a minimum of six course credits per quarter (or semester) for three quarters (or two semesters) in courses where at least half of the instruction is in person on a UC campus, according to the Senate document. This corresponds with one out of the four undergraduate years, according to Melanie Cocco, associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at UC Irvine. Those studying in prison are exempt. The UC Academic Senate exercises direct control over academic matters of central importance to the university, including determining academic policy and setting degree requirements, according to the UC website.

“The University of California is known for a certain kind of excellence,” Mary Ann Smart, professor of music at UC Berkeley and chair of the Berkeley division of the Academic Senate, told Inside Higher Ed. “If it’s going to move toward offering online degrees, that should be a deliberate, conscious and carefully planned decision, and that decision hasn’t been made yet.”

Few institutions can be all things to all students. For this reason, colleges often identify program experiences that align with their values and target specific student populations. With this new requirement, the University of California system has made clear its view that the benefits students reap when they show up in person at least some of the time trumps the benefits of fully remote college.

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“If I were the University of California in 2023 thinking about my place in the higher ed universe and the kind of students I serve and shape, fully online isn’t necessarily an obvious fit,” said Richard Garrett, chief research officer at Eduventures, a consulting and research firm.

But in justifying its choice as an institution with no fully online degrees, Garrett and other researchers note that the California system has perpetuated some outdated or unsupported claims about online learning. Further, they say, the new residency requirement may limit educational equity and access, particularly to qualified students in need of flexible learning options.

Online Learning Assertions

  1. On the merit of an online degree in a postgraduate job search

Employers see online degrees as “second-class,” according to Barbara Knowlton, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Knowlton, who serves as chair of the Senate’s Board of Admissions and Relations With Schools, expressed the sentiment in a letter to Susan Cochran, president of the Academic Senate, during deliberation over the new policy. Knowlton argued that “applicants listing online degrees actually receive call backs at an equivalent or lower rate than applicants who listed no degree at all.” As evidence, she cited a pre-pandemic (2016) study.

But the pandemic introduced remote learning on a societal scale, which has helped destigmatize online degrees. Today, nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of employers perceive online educational credentials as on par with or of a higher quality than those completed in person, according to a 2021 Northeastern University study.

Besides, few (if any) studies have isolated program modality as a single variable that influences postgraduation placement, according to Garrett. Most studies consider a constellation of variables related to students’ socioeconomic status and program or course design and delivery mode.

“All of the instructional elements happening in the classroom work together in some way,” Jenay Robert, researcher at Educause, said in agreement with Garrett. “Modality is one tool in the pedagogical toolbox. Pulling out one piece and examining its impact in isolation doesn’t really work.”

  1. On the merit of online undergraduate research

In-person student participation is “crucial” for fostering research in California’s university system, according to Cynthia Schumann, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at UC Davis. Schumann wrote in her capacity as chair of the system’s University Committee on Research Policy to Cochran during the deliberation.

But just as employers are negotiating return-to-work policies with their employees, colleges are now negotiating their balance of online, blended, hybrid and in-person learning options in ways that many traditional-aged students find attractive.

When designing undergraduate research experiences, faculty often consider modality along with other elements to ensure a quality experience.

“What is the subject matter you’re researching?” Robert asked. “What are the methodologies you’re using for the research? What are the objectives of the research? What are the individual needs of the students engaging in that research? You have to examine all of these in tandem.”

Some field or lab research may need to be done in person. But for some research, online options may be preferable.

“Surely there’re certain kinds of research that might be inherently internet-based,” Garrett said. “Or the fact that you don’t have to be in a classroom might enable you to visit a site to collect and report data that might be more challenging if you were just sitting in a classroom.”

  1. On preferences for college modality

For students to have a meaningful educational experience, they should be “on campus interacting with their instructors and fellow students in person,” according to John Kim, associate professor of German, Japanese and comparative literature at UC Riverside. Kim wrote to Cochran in his capacity as chair of Riverside’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences executive committee. “However, we would like a justification for why only 50 percent of instructional hours should be in-person,” Kim wrote. “Several members of the committee felt that this percentage could be higher unless there is a clear justification for 50 percent.”

Cocco, who also serves as chair of the university committee on educational policy, agreed.

“We know that undergraduate students taking classes in person often perform academically better than those taking classes online and, that students learning in-person are more likely to complete the course,” Cocco wrote, adding that online student graduation rates are “notoriously low” compared to mostly in-person student graduation rates. She also cited concerns that online courses are afflicted with technology problems that in-person classes do not have.

But not everyone agrees that online college is inferior to in-person college or that in-person classes are free of their own challenges.

“That kind of blanket negativity is a relic from the days when online was only done by for-profits,” Garrett said, adding that modalities are not inherently good or bad. “You can use online to do great things, bad things and different things, just as you can use campus classrooms to do all of those things … Also, you can thrive in an online environment, and you can crash in the on-campus environment depending on the curriculum as well as the modality. The modality is just one variable.”

Historically, students who have earned fully online undergraduate degrees have largely been adult learners, and many have attended institutions with open admission policies, Garrett noted, regarding the selection bias in earlier online learning surveys. That makes comparing historical online learners with the kind of traditional-aged students who might be admitted to and seek to study fully online at the highly selective UC Berkeley inappropriate.

“I would really question that kind of knee-jerk ‘campus is always better than online’ sentiment,” Garrett said.

  1. On the merit of online options among marginalized students

Many first-generation and underrepresented students do “not have sufficient academic support in fully online programs,” according to Louis DeSipio, professor of political science at University of California, Irvine. DeSipio, who is the chair of the Senate’s committee on affirmative action, diversity and equity, wrote a letter to Cochran during the deliberation.

But some contest that broad generalization. Colleges that provide a variety of ways for students to access and complete coursework, including online options, support equity, engagement and learning, according to an 2021 Educause survey on equity and student success. Further, technology can be leveraged to decrease students’ stress, according to the survey.

“You can force students to come on campus, but what if that campus is not inclusive?” Raquel Rall, associate professor of higher education at UC Riverside, told Inside Higher Ed. “What if that campus never sees that person and they feel even more isolated?”

Besides, many students with significant work or family responsibilities report that online learning offers much-needed flexibility in their lives, according to a 2022 Educause report.

“We have to think more of a ‘both-and’ mentality,” Rall said about marginalized college students’ learning needs, especially for those with work and family responsibilities. “When online is done right, it has the potential to really open up access for a lot of students.”

To be sure, the new University of California rule allows students to pursue a mix of online and in-person courses, and that may make a difference for students in need of flexible learning options.

In response to a question about whether the new rule may impact equity negatively, Cocco pointed to a white paper the UC Academic Council drafted during the deliberation. In a section titled “Equity,” faculty expressed concern that fully online degrees could result in a two-tiered system, “creating groups of students who receive second-class treatment in terms of services, instruction, and degree quality, and groups of faculty who are not research-active and receive lower salaries.” Physical proximity to on-campus services were deemed important for all students, including those who are first-generation, underrepresented or economically disadvantaged. The paper noted that some may lack reliable internet or a quiet place to study.

“We have a food bank where students who are food insecure can come once a week and get a bag full of fresh food and groceries,” Cocco said, adding that on-campus support also includes health-care services and a gym. “We also have a service where, if a student becomes homeless, we find housing for them for 30 days so they can get back on their feet.”

That said, some in the UC system expressed concern that the new residency requirement had inherent flaws, given the local housing market and on-campus housing restrictions.

“The impulse to preserve values of face-to-face instruction [is] itself out of step with the present era when campuses are de facto incapable of providing housing and other support to students, who are accordingly forced by circumstance to utilize any means at hand to complete their degrees,” Robert Ashmore, associate professor in the Chinese program, department chair and chair of the undergraduate council at UC Berkeley, wrote.

  1. On the difference from the early-pandemic switch to emergency remote teaching

College students reported “less-than-ideal experiences” during the early-pandemic switch to emergency remote teaching, and those barriers “persist” in today’s online courses, according to Donald Senear, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at UC Irvine. Senear, who is the chair of the university committee on planning and budget, expressed his view in a letter to Cochran during the deliberation.

But pre-, early- and late-pandemic online learning experiences differ widely, according to Jeff Seaman, director of Bay View Analytics, who has surveyed students, faculty members and administrators about their views.

“Our data show that students think that it’s gotten better, faculty think that it’s gotten better and administrators think that it’s gotten better,” Seaman said of online learning. “All three of those groups think that there should be more online learning going forward, and all three of those groups have a higher level of satisfaction with online learning than pre-pandemic and also right at the beginning of the switch to the pandemic.”

Further, the pandemic has “reshaped our lives around more online and remote modes for living, working, playing, and learning,” according to the Educause report. Early-pandemic online teaching models have been replaced with more sustainable and evidence-based models that support consumer preferences, according to the report.

“Remote work and hybrid and online learning are not going anywhere,” Robert said. “Students need to know how to operate in this hybrid world.”

Not All Oppose Online Learning

Though the undergraduate residency requirement was approved by the Academic Senate, not all UC community members oppose the prospect of fully online degrees. During the deliberation, some had expressed that the pandemic had changed their views of online learning.

“We have realized that different modalities may work better for different disciplines and curricula, and we still need a more thorough assessment of the outcomes of online courses for different student populations, especially for traditionally underrepresented students,” Patty Gallagher, professor of theater arts and chair of UC Santa Cruz’s division of the Academic Senate, wrote in a letter to Cochran. “The committee believes that possible equity impacts should be better understood before imposing the blanket solution of senior residency.”

Kirsten Silva Gruesz, professor of literature and chair of the committee on affirmative action and diversity at UC Santa Cruz, wrote to Cochran that the residency requirement is “not appropriately attuned to the ways that students now are taking courses and completing their college careers.”

Dard Neuman, associate professor of music and chair of the committee on planning and budget at UC Santa Cruz, called out the Senate’s actions when arguing that “the proposed amendment measures are flawed because they are, in fact, designed to solve a separate problem: how to slow down the emergence of online undergraduate degree programs at UC.”

Ashmore expressed that “some members [of the Berkeley division of the Academic Senate] expressed indignation at the idea that approved online courses should be deemed inferior to face-to-face counterparts.”

Cochran declined an invitation to talk, citing an overbooked schedule.

Despite such dissent, UC system students must now complete a residency requirement before graduation. Seaman had this to say about the outcome:

“If you wanted to create a policy that would specifically disadvantage to a greater extent students with financial concerns, and therefore the need to be working, students who have caregiver responsibilities, and therefore the need to take care of parents, children and siblings, or students who are remote and in rural areas, and therefore can’t easily get to campus, this policy perfectly targets those vulnerable groups.”

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