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December 11, 2012 2:55 PM Resisting the Online Trend

By Daniel Luzer

American policymakers love the idea of online college, promising as it does the possibility of more educational achievement for less public money. As former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and education reformer Randy Best wrote recently in the Palm Beach Post, “online education holds the promise for universities to not only shrink their deficits but also extend their programs to a vast number of students, all at significantly lower costs.”

Despite the fact that completion rates for online courses are lower than for real ones, this is a rather compelling argument. Not everyone is buying into it, however. According to a piece by Sarah Pavlus at the American Independent, one rural community college in Arizona is resisting the trend, and decided to offer more in-person courses, because that’s what it seems like the community really needs. As Pavlus writes:

A three-hour drive from the state’s nearest public university, Eastern Arizona [College] is, many people acknowledge, in the middle of nowhere. But despite its remote location, the school is a thriving educational and cultural hub for a close-knit, predominantly Mormon community and nearby Indian reservations, say people involved in the state’s education system.
Officials at Eastern Arizona, convinced that online programs would not spur bachelor’s degree completion in their rural community, relentlessly pursued more face-to-face options.

Apparently it took nearly ten years of lobbying by the college to get the state to approve on-site programs in nursing and business. The college explained the need for real, campus-based classes because “they are a more effective way of increasing bachelor’s degree completion rates.”

The success, and full cost, of this endeavor is yet to be determined but the reason for Eastern Arizona’s efforts seem fairly clear.

Part of the difference between a push for more online courses and a push for more traditional courses seemes to be the difference between creating policy to get more people taking college courses, and creating policy to actually get more college graduates in a community.

Note that it doesn’t appear Arizona community colleges, at this point, can really offer bachelor’s degrees. Eastern Arizona is offering the program in partnership with Arizona State University, which grants the degrees.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer