Game-changing online education proposal approved by CU regents

$20 million investment and goals met with unanimous enthusiasm by board

Regent Stephen Ludwig introduces online education goals at this month's Board of Regents meeting.
Cathy Beuten/University of Colorado
Regent Stephen Ludwig introduces online education goals at this month's Board of Regents meeting.

The University of Colorado Board of Regents has unanimously approved an ambitious $20 million proposal to implement university online education goals over the next four years.

Introduced by Regent Stephen Ludwig, D-Denver, the plan had been vetted through the regents and faculty constituents before being brought to the board at its Nov. 16 meeting in Boulder.

“We’re asking to invest $20 million over the next four years because that’s a lot to get done in a short amount of time,” Ludwig said.

The proposal was developed in the wake of disappointing results from efforts that began in summer 2014 to coordinate a unified online campus presence.

“The campuses' efforts with the cross-campus portal were not successful,” Ludwig said, noting although there was growth in enrollment, it was purely organic. “We invested a lot of money in marketing and that didn’t turn out like we’d hoped.” 

An Academic Affairs Committee report showed that between fall 2016 and spring 2017, CU spent $500,000 on marketing plus staff time to develop the CU Connect portal, and while the site received healthy traffic, users did not proceed toward registration in significant numbers.

“Basically, our culture, rewards and structure are holding us back,” Ludwig said. “We are behind our peers in the amount of degrees we offer.”

A bright spot in the advancement of CU’s online education presence is the success of a grant program approved by the regents in 2016 to implement a cross-campus, three-year, online only degree, which will launch in fall 2018.

Highlights of the new online initiative include:

  • Identifying a set of five key bachelor’s degrees and five key master’s degrees that serve the current and near-term employment needs in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region by fall 2018.
  • Degrees will be expanded to be available completely online, using techniques such as asynchronous delivery, multiple start-times per semester.
  • By fall 2022, the university will develop and launch two online-only degrees with a total fixed cost to students of $15,000 (including books and fees), one for bachelor’s level and one for master’s level.

See the full presentation here.

In October, Ludwig and Regent Jack Kroll, D-Denver, met with Michael Lightner, vice president for academic affairs, and determined to split the initial proposal into two sections: goals and funding, approved at the Nov. 16 meeting; and implementation, which will be outlined and voted on at the regents’ Feb. 8-9 meeting at CU Denver.

Lightner said that because the goal and the money allotment were approved in the Nov. 16 vote, the rest of the initiative needs to be further fleshed out before the February meeting.

“We need to think of, ‘What structure or strategy do we put in place to support the goals?’” These may or may not be the same steps as in the original resolution, he said, noting that the initial goals are a road map. “We need to determine, ‘What are the appropriate mechanisms to achieve the goals the board has voted on?’”

Working closely with the board – primarily Regents Ludwig and Kroll – Academic Affairs will develop a minimal structure that allows for the regents to move forward, Lightner said.

Projected outcomes of the $20 million investment include:

  • $15,000 degrees that reflect CU’s commitment and willingness to be a national leader in addressing the growing costs of higher education.
  • Strengthening CU’s commitment to helping working, rural and first-generation students attain their educational goals.
  • Further demonstrating CU’s commitment to helping Colorado meet its workforce needs.

The regents voiced enthusiasm and optimism at this initial step to fulfill the university’s vision of accessible education through online learning and fully online degrees.

“It’s got me more and more excited about the potential and the future of where we can go,” said Regent Heidi Ganahl, R-Superior. “Something I’d like to see as part of this effort is obviously rural Colorado and our students there, and how important it is to pull them in to the University of Colorado.”

She also stressed the importance of increased opportunities for adaptive learning, “It’s not just online learning, it’s a new way of teaching, a new age of learning.”

Regent Irene Griego, D-Lakewood, appreciated the research and analysis of university peers across the country. “I think that redesigning and looking at what it would take and what we’re doing – and what we need to be doing in terms of best practices – will take us where we need to be.”

Added Regent John Carson, R-Highlands Ranch, “This is a priority for the university. We realize there are going to be adjustments along the way. It’s a significant moment when we say as a board, ‘This is very important.’ It puts us on the leading edge of something for our state and broader.”

Kroll and Board Chair Sue Sharkey, R-Castle Rock, stressed the importance of online opportunities for military personnel and veterans to get a jump on their education.

“This is providing access to people within the state of Colorado and our rural community,” Sharkey said. “I serve in a district that is mostly rural, eastern Colorado, and one of our desires as regents is to provide access to as many people as possible and it certainly does that not only within Colorado but outside the state.”

Regent Kyle Hybl, R-Colorado Springs, approved of the plan, but expressed concern over funding for the $15,000 full degree. “I worry … that what we’re doing is incentivizing the university to subsidize that through other activities.”

Lightner and Ludwig said funding would be resolved in the second part of the proposal to be voted on in February.

Regent Glen Gallegos, R-Grand Junction, was optimistic, but guarded. “We thought we were on a pretty good track, and we find it’s not moving forward, so we’re going to invest $20 million. So I hope along the lines we’re going to address those issues.

“I think that this is hopeful, but I’ve been there before. I don’t want to get so excited and then four years down the line we don’t have the campus involvement that we’re hoping for.”