The UNC system aims to invigorate its position in the online education market to attract more adult learners and veterans.
A reconstructed website was launched this month with a streamlined look and better navigation. The goal is to connect more potential students with online courses and degree programs at the state’s public universities.
The system contracted with a Seattle startup, Ranku, to redesign what had been a cluttered and confusing website. The new site, http://online.northcarolina.edu/, has a simple and elegant look, and quickly points users to programs either by academic field or by university. It includes estimated tuition for the programs – something that had been missing from the previous site.
“We’re trying to be a more active matchmaker between candidates and programs,” said Matthew Rascoff, the UNC system’s vice president for technology-based learning and innovation.
UNC isn’t new to the online education game, having marketed degrees under the system banner since 2007. The campuses offer 324 online degree and certificate programs.
Some schools, such as East Carolina University, have been innovators. ECU has 84 online programs; N.C. State University has 73. More than 20,000 students are enrolled in online-only programs across the UNC system.
But UNC Online, as the umbrella brand is known, has increasingly lost students to for-profit schools that advertise heavily to win students. It has also fallen behind other public universities.
A 2012 report by a UNC-hired consultant pointed out that UNC trailed seven other southern states in the percentage of instruction delivered by e-learning (7.9 percent in 2009-10), according to the Southern Regional Education Board.
“In large part, the lack of a focused, broad-based e-learning initiative in North Carolina has throttled its development,” wrote the Georgia-based consultant, Bruce Chaloux.
At the same time, North Carolina’s community colleges have leaped to second in the region, with 21.2 percent of instruction online in 2009-10, Chaloux wrote.
Community College System spokeswoman Megen Hoenk said the state’s community colleges saw 400,000 registrations in online curriculum courses last academic year. An additional 50,000 registrations were logged for noncredit courses at the community colleges.
UNC leaders want online to be a bigger part of its future, too. A five-year plan adopted by the UNC Board of Governors last year includes an emphasis on e-learning as part of its strategy to increase the percentage of North Carolina adults with a four-year degree, from 26 percent to 32 percent by 2018. The university is urging adults with some college to finish their degrees, and online education may be the best option for them.
That population – 1.2 million North Carolinians with some college plus 500,000 with two-year degrees – represents a huge untapped opportunity for online education, the 2012 consultant’s report said.
Another big market is the state’s large concentration of veterans who want to further their education when they leave the military service. They have been heavily recruited by for-profit universities, according to a July report from the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The report said that military enrollment in for-profit schools had risen rapidly in recent years, with taxpayers spending twice as much on average to send a veteran to a for-profit college as a public university.
“What we do is much higher quality, our graduation rates are higher and our default rates are lower,” Rascoff said of UNC, compared to the for-profits. “We have a better product, but we’ve been outmarketed.”
The new website has so far shown better results for UNC. Last September, the site recorded 285 daily visitors to online program listings. This September, the average daily visitors had more than tripled, to 980.
Visitors will be able to login via Facebook or LinkedIn, and get personalized results.
That may turn the browsers into students.
Rascoff said he’s in the hunt for a private employer who wants to partner with UNC to provide online education to employees.
Starbucks recently made news by announcing it would pay for its workers to complete a degree through Arizona State University’s booming online branch. By early this month, more than 4,000 Starbucks employees had applied.