The UW System is looking to double its online enrollment in a systemwide program.
The effort is designed to ramp up online degree program offerings and head off an anticipated drop in the number of students who traditionally enter college after graduating from high school, according to UW System documents.
An aging population and an anticipated 8% drop in high school graduates between 2025 and 2030 mean universities will have many fewer “traditional-age students,” according to UW System Board of Regents meeting materials.
That means an expected push to attract nontraditional students — who might get more mileage out of online degree programs, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout officials said.
Nontraditional students can be commuters, students over 24, may have families or are parents, may work full time or may not have received a standard high school diploma, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“There’s a huge concern nationwide about the amount of students that we’ll be losing between now and 2025 as a result of changes in demographics,” said Darrell Newton, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of graduate studies at UW-Eau Claire.
Universities may need to re-shape their course offerings to attract different kinds of students, he added.
“It’s now a matter of also reaching out to nontraditional students, first-generation students, students who didn’t complete master’s programs originally, students who always wanted to do a master’s program,” Newton said.
The regents today in Whitewater are set to discuss the UW Extended Campus, a program created in 2017 that works with all UW System colleges to run 24 degree programs.
The system aims to add two new UW-EX programs per year through 2025, with the goal of doubling online enrollment, according to regents documents.
UW-EX partners with UW-Eau Claire on four collaborative degrees and with UW-Stout on three, according to regents documents.
But the UW System’s online degree programs, even those not associated with UW-EX, have grown in the last five academic years.
UW System online-only degree programs not offered through UW-EX grew by 16% between 2014 and 2019, according to regents documents. In the same time period, online programs administered by UW-EX grew by 54%. UW-EX was created in 2017.
Stout Online currently has 1,774 students enrolled, including undergraduate, graduate and other demographics — and that includes “a considerable number of non-traditional students,” said Doug Mell, UW-Stout executive director of communications and external relations.
UW-Eau Claire offers three online master’s degree programs — in data science, business administration and communication sciences and disorders.
Those three online programs enrolled 442 students in fall 2019, according to UW-Eau Claire numbers.
But the university is considering encouraging other departments, especially in the humanities, to “establish more of an online presence,” Newton said.
“We have a very different type of student now than we did 10, 20 years ago. Those students have to be appealed to, perhaps brought to bear as much as we possibly can, including going online,” Newton said.