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University of California Bans Fully Online Undergraduate Degrees

No longer will the University of California permit undergraduates to earn 100 percent fully online degrees, according to a February 2023 investigation by Inside Higher Ed’s technology and innovation reporter, Dr. Susan D’Agostino. Although the UC System has never officially offered undergraduate programs available completely online, savvy students could cobble together enough of the online versions of the university’s courses to satisfy degree requirements without attending any of those classes in person.

Two aspects of the university’s ban surprised observers. One is that this is appears to be a retrograde move, inconsistent with the reputation of the University of California as the most innovative system among the nation’s top-ranked “Public Ivy” flagship state universities.

The other surprise involves the way that the university implemented this restriction. In contrast with many other American colleges, the University of California apparently didn’t require an academic residency requirement from its undergraduates. Traditionally, a residency rule common to many American universities has required students complete either their first 90 (or the last 30) credit-hours in person on the school’s campus before the university will graduate the student.

The UC System only instituted such a requirement by passing Academic Senate Regulations 610 and 630 early in 2023. The complicated new rules stipulate that students have to earn at least six course credits per term during three quarters or two semesters in courses where at least 50 percent of the instruction takes place in person on one of the UC campuses. Those time intervals roughly correlate with one year out of an undergraduate program’s four years.

Dr. Mary Ann Smart, a UC Berkeley musicology professor and chair of the Academic Senate’s Berkeley Division, explained to Inside Higher Ed:

The University of California is known for a certain kind of excellence. 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.

Dr. D’Agostino writes that the UC Senate “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.” However, experts point out that several faculty members appear to have justified their votes based on obsolete assertions about online education that lack current support. They also argue that these regulations could restrict equitable access to education among minority and disabled students who most need alternatives that provide them with instructional flexibility.

Here are three reasons the faculty senate members cited when arguing against allowing fully online degrees in the UC System.

Labor Market Value of Online Degrees

Almost three-quarters of employers now view online degrees as equal to or better than the quality of educational programs completed on campus, according to one of the most widely-reported recent studies of hiring trends published by Northeastern University in 2021. “The pandemic introduced remote learning on a societal scale, which has helped destigmatize online degrees,” writes Dr. D’Agostino.

Incredibly, UCLA Psychology Department vice chair Dr. Barbara Knowlton ignored that study during the debate before the Senate’s vote. Curiously citing seven-year-old pre-pandemic research, she argued that employers perceive online degrees as “second-class” credentials—and were as likely or even less likely to call applicants in for interviews who listed online degrees as those without degrees:

Regarding degree outcomes in fully online programs, Deming et al. (2016) found in an audit study published in the American Economic Review that applicants listing online degrees actually received callbacks at an equivalent or lower rate than applicants who listed no degree at all. This suggests that employers already view online degrees as “second class.” This increases the risk to students who assume student debt as part of their financial aid package that they will suffer adverse consequences from those debts.

We looked up that study. From its abstract:

We find that a business bachelor’s degree from a for-profit online institution is 22 percent less likely to receive a callback than one from a nonselective public institution. In applications to health jobs, we find that for-profit credentials receive fewer callbacks unless the job requires an external quality indicator such as an occupational license. (emphasis ours)

So let’s be clear on precisely what research Dr. Knowlton is attempting to use to argue against online degrees. First, by no means have all online degree programs been operated by for-profit institutions and that certainly is not the case today, so it’s not clear why she seems to be mixing up these two groups.

Second, she’s relying on an old study that’s predominantly evaluating for-profit online colleges. These are schools like the University of Phoenix and the former Ashford University, which we discussed recently in depth in our analysis of the proposed takeover of Phoenix by the University of Arkansas System.

In short, these for-profit institutions bear no relation whatsoever to the highly selective University of California. They are open-admissions colleges notorious for their low graduation rates and the terrible performance of their alumni and former students in the job market.

Processes Trump Learning Outcomes

Time and again in the written debate prior to the Senate’s vote, one can observe professors arguing that educational processes take priority over learning outcomes, and that the established in-person processes are always superior to online education.

For example, in October 2022, UC Riverside professor John Kim wrote to Senate President Susan Cochran that “a meaningful educational experience for our students is best attained when students are on campus interacting with their instructors and fellow students in-person.” He then continued by asking Dr. Cochran:

We would like a justification for why only 50 percent of instructional hours should be in-person. Several members of the committee felt that this percentage could be higher unless there is a clear justification for 50 percent.

However, Dr. Kim’s presumption that online education is inferior to instruction on campus is out of step not only with the current trend in American public opinion reflected in a variety of recent polls, but also with the arguments of several higher education experts.

For example, in December 2022, we pointed out the findings of a new study demonstrating that most Americans—55 percent—now rank the quality of online education equivalent to or better than in-person instruction. We also covered comments from experts like UCLA electrical engineering professor John Villasenor. “Something unexpected has happened,” he wrote. “For many college courses, online instruction is proving to be far more effective than many people anticipated.”

Furthermore, referring to Dr. Kim’s comments, Richard Garrett, the chief research officer at the Boston-based educational consulting firm Eduventures, told Inside Higher Ed “That kind of blanket negativity is a relic from the days when online was only done by for-profits.” He continued:

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.

Minority and Disabled Students Should Be On Campus

On behalf of the University Committee on Affirmative Action, Diversity, and Equity (UCAADE), UC Irvine political science professor Louis DeSipio wrote that “many first generation students and underrepresented minority students will not have sufficient academic support in fully online programs. UCAADE believes that requiring residency is most likely to serve all UC students.”

But that stance is completely out of step with all that the national press has recently been reporting. In January 2023, we summarized six articles from CNBC and the education press published between March 2021 and July 2022 that detailed how minority and disabled university students benefit from online learning. And the experts we cited amount to a “Who’s Who” among America’s higher education diversity community. They include Dennison University’s Dr. Karen Powell Sears, disability researchers Dr. Joseph Madaus and Dr. Nicholas Gelbar of the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, and Dr. Raechele Pope, the chief diversity officer with the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Moreover, several recent Educause surveys since 2021 have revealed how colleges with flexible online options support learning, engagement, and educational equity. And Dr. Raquel Rall, a UC Riverside education professor, told Inside Higher Ed, “When online is done right, it has the potential to really open up access for a lot of students.”

But at a time when the University of California already offers a fully online engineering master’s degree and other highly selective institutions like Harvard are now introducing fully online degrees, instituting a regressive year-long residency requirement is in many ways the antithesis of promoting diversity, inclusion, and access.

Perhaps the real unspoken reason is that the professors in the current Senate have other priorities and just don’t care about the needs of marginalized students. Educational policy expert Jeff Seaman, the president of Bay View Analytics, offered this perspective:

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.

University of California Bans Fully Online Undergraduate Degrees

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.