Georgia's Valdosta State University this summer plans to launch an online college targeting adult learners, who are generally considered to be ages 25 and older.
Officials bill the college as a local and less-expensive alternative to national universities with large online footprints, including Southern New Hampshire University and the University of Phoenix.
The online college will offer eight bachelor's degree programs that cost $299 per credit hour. Valdosta joins several other public universities that have launched programs aiming to better compete with large online colleges.
Valdosta officials said the new Online College for Career Advancement includes some of the same elements many large online universities offer.
Students will be able to start new programs weekly, and courses will each last eight weeks. Instruction will largely be asynchronous, though students will have the opportunity for real-time interaction with faculty members. The college will also have one coach for every 50 students to help navigate roadblocks to completing their education.
The new college's per-credit price is lower than that of some large online universities. Southern New Hampshire, for instance, charges undergraduates attending online $320 per credit, though it offers some students discounts. Undergraduates at the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college, pay $398 per credit, according to its website.
The eight undergraduate programs include degrees in business administration, organizational leadership and psychology. The university selected the programs based on student and employer demand, said Rodney Carr, the university's vice president for student success. Three of the degrees were already online, though Valdosta made changes to the class format and structure.
The university is hoping to enroll 500 students this fall in the college, which was approved by the system's board of governors as a pilot, and it plans to expand from there. While the college will be focused on enrolling Georgia residents, Carr noted Valdosta is located near the Florida border.
"We'll be recruiting in Florida, of course, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee — we'll be going across the country," Carr said.
More than 70,000 students in Georgia attended an online college based in another state or territory in the fall of 2019, according to data from NC-SARA, an organization that oversees how distance education is offered across state lines.
While there's "a good chance" Valdosta could shave off a meaningful part of that market, it will be difficult to compete against institutions with more prominent brands, said Michael Horn, who has authored books on the future of education and is a senior strategist at Guild Education, a tuition benefits platform.
Strayer University, a for-profit college, drew 8,350 students from Georgia that fall, more than any other out-of-state provider. Other top competitors for Georgia students include the University of Phoenix, Liberty University and Western Governors University, which each enrolled more than 4,500 students from the state in 2019.
Although Valdosta is employing elements that online colleges bill as critical to their success — such as flexible start dates, short terms and career-oriented programming — it's not a "slam dunk," said Richard Garrett, chief research officer at Eduventures. "In a market where those things are exemplified by schools that are so much bigger, so much better-resourced than Valdosta will ever be, does it make sense to compete on those things?"
Valdosta could set itself apart from national online universities by creating curriculum that caters to regional needs or by forging connections with local employers, Garrett said.
Horn echoed that point. "There's room in the market for regional offerings that are tailored to the local economy," he said.