Early college program sees changes

At the quarterly meeting of the UNA board of trustees March 16, the board moved unanimously to revise the early college program to prevent out-of-state students from taking online and study abroad courses from UNA free of tuition.

The early college program—used primarily as a recruiting tool—offers one free class to area high school students, said Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. John Thornell.

“Recent changes in the early college program, including those made at the board meeting on March 16, are tailored to meet the needs of students and the university,” said UNA President Bill Cale in an emailed statement. “We are always seeking to strike the proper balance between serving prospective students in the region and protecting the university from possible over-commitments on our faculty or financial resources.”

Thornell said the program was amended because of several problems.

“Allowing out-of-state students to enroll in online classes is not practical from a recruiting standpoint,” Thornell said. “And it isn’t financially feasible to allow high school students to participate in study abroad programs without paying tuition.”

Early college students will still be allowed to enroll in study abroad courses, provided they pay tuition, Thornell said.

The former tuition-free policy of the early college program attracted many students who would have otherwise enrolled in online courses at other schools, though they did not typically attend UNA as a result of the program, Thornell said.

“Some schools raised their concerns to us that their students would take our free online classes with no intention of going to school here,” he said. “We don’t want to be bad school neighbors, and we don’t want to put unnecessary work on our faculty.”

Thornell said the original problems with the program were addressed at a faculty senate meeting approximately six months ago.

“As it stood, a student from California could take an online course for free—with little to no chance that they would come to UNA—and that faculty member would have to spend hours working with that student,” he said.

The early college program did not recruit many online participants in the way officials intended, Thornell said.

“With online students, the professor-student relationships don’t develop in a way that would encourage students to come to UNA as much as coming to campus would,” he said.

A problem officials had with the program was its financial infeasibility, Thornell said.

“It didn’t make sense anymore,” he said. “Recruiting is good, but when we’re outside that, we’re just giving away free classes.”

The program waived $428,460 in tuition for 735 high school students in 2011 and brought approximately 40 percent of participants to UNA for college.

Thornell said many high school residents of nearby states like Tennessee who participate in the program do return to UNA for college.

“It does make sense to let some out-of-state students take classes when they are within a 50-mile radius,” he said. “Then they are more likely to familiarize themselves with the university and come to campus.”

Members of faculty senate are working to develop an early scholars program that would target outstanding students in varying disciplines, Thornell said. With so many high school students participating in the growing number of early college programs, the new program would serve to distinguish outstanding high school students from their peers, he said.

“The whole notion of high school kids taking college classes used to be kind of rare,” he said. “Now, just about everyone does it.”

Despite the problems the early college program has encountered, Thornell said it is a necessary and important part of UNA.

“I was asked at the last board of trustees meeting why we are keeping the program,” he said. “My answer was that we really have no choice; we have to remain competitive with other universities.”