Online learning in higher education is booming. Within the University of North Carolina system, about 40 percent of students are taking some online courses, according to Wilmington resident Hannah Gage, who serves on the UNC Board of Governors. Her former board colleague, Wilmington businessman Raiford Trask III, notes that the UNC system offers 75 degree completion programs online.
“It’s tremendously important,” he said. “The way of the future is online and distance education.”
Trask realized, however, that there was a gaping hole in the UNC system’s online offerings: no option for students who want to complete their lower-division general studies requirements. There was also no program aimed at helping active-duty military personnel or veterans make the transition from service member to student. Trask saw the lack of a military-friendly path to education as a failing in what he calls the UNC system’s mission to reach as many as possible.
So, during his four-year BOG term, which ended June 30 this year, Trask put together and chaired a special committee on military affairs to tackle the issue.
“Raiford is interested in the military. He understands the needs of the military and understands online education,” said Gage, who served on the committee.
It took the full weight of the board, a couple of years and – literally – an act of legislature for the committee to achieve its goal, but the new UNC Core program is now up and running, with a roster of courses in English, philosophy, drama, art history, music and religion – courses drawn from those available through the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education. The committee raised $250,000 to get the program off the ground.
While the program is targeted to active-duty service members and veterans, anyone can apply, officials said.
The breakthrough began with choosing courses that would provide the right credits and creating a program tailored to a highly mobile military population as well as to recent veterans who don’t necessarily fit the profile of a college-ready individual. Once these service members complete the UNC Core requirements online, they can pursue a major, either on a UNC system campus or online, and – as Trask says – “get a degree from the best public university in the nation.”
“This is the springboard for the university’s bigger effort [systemwide] to educate nontraditional students,” Gage said.
A major stumbling block to creating the program was the admissions process, officials said. Many military personnel don’t have the academic profile of a traditional entering freshman at UNC campuses, said Amanda Parkstone, transfer coordinator for University of North Carolina Wilmington, who is the local campus contact for the new UNC Core program.
“We have them apply as transfer students and count military credit as transfer credit,” Parkstone said. “It might be a difficult transition for them. They might need remedial courses, which UNCW does not offer, but we do have tutoring, supplementary instruction and the support they need. The first-year process is very competitive, and they would not be competitive. But we value the dynamic they bring to campus.”
Trask said that there is a “lower threshold” for transfer student admission, and that the Friday Center has open admission platforms that give military personnel access to them.
When students enroll in the UNC Core, they are not enrolling in any particular institution, Parkstone explained.
“There are no admission requirements, no application fee, no transcripts, no letters of recommendation, no SATs. It takes away the feeling of competition,” she said. “Not all [military personnel and veterans] are college ready, but it allows them to get their foot in the door, establish a college GPA and see how they measure up. The program gives them an opportunity to access these core classes in a manner suitable to their needs.”
Whether students taking the courses are deployed abroad, waiting for deployment or transitioning to civilian life, they can be assured that all UNC Core courses will be readily transferable to a UNC campus or other institution, even out of state, Parkstone added. She said students can choose among online and correspondence courses, with online classes tied to a more structured semester schedule and the correspondence courses self-paced within a more flexible timeframe.
As Trask’s committee moved forward on creating a program, it had to address an obstacle in attracting students: in-state residency requirements.
According to Trask, many military personnel have established residency in either Texas or Florida because those states have no state income tax. If they had to move to North Carolina and wait a year to qualify for UNC Core in-state tuition, that would have real financial implications for them.
Trask, with the assistance of his fellow Board of Governors members, lobbied to get a residency exemption for military-affiliated students and was successful.
“The legislature changed the qualifications for in-state residency to ‘immediately’ if a military person changed their home state to North Carolina,” he said.
According to Parkstone, an active-duty service member, National Guard member or reservist who claims North Carolina as his or her residence gets UNC’s in-state tuition rate. An out-of-state service member can apply for financial assistance.
An in-state UNC Core enrollee with GI Bill benefits can significantly reduce the out-of-pocket cost of a four-year education, Trask said, possibly graduating debt-free. And the program will have a “huge benefit to the economy” as it allows a population that has already demonstrated “discipline and work ethic” to earn a four-year degree, he added.
Gage agrees, citing the university system’s strategic plan that has set a goal of North Carolina becoming one of the top 10 “most-educated” states in the U.S. by 2025.
“We’re at 30 percent [of the state’s population holding a college degree] now and aiming for 32 percent by 2017 or 2018,” she said. “The whole idea is that a knowledge economy is more likely to attract more of the kinds of business and industry we want.”
Former military personnel, armed with a college education, can be an important segment of those knowledge workers, Gage added.
She noted the need for additional funding for UNC Core, especially to help the system market it, but Parkstone is already seeing interest from some military-affiliated transfer student applicants at UNCW.
“With the new, easy-to-navigate website and the new branding as UNC Core, we can now market it to students,” she said. “The few students I’ve talked to have been very receptive.”
Trask’s commitment to the project was key to its success, said Tommy Harrelson, a Southport businessman who also served on Trask’s military affairs committee.
“This is one of the most important initiatives to help servicemen and women who do so much for our country,” Harrelson said. “If not for Raiford Trask, we would not have gotten this far. He got the whole university system on board, and the [Board of Governors’] involvement was essential.”