What makes UF's online bachelor's degree program No. 1 in the nation?

A photo from the back of three students in caps and gowns at commencement.

The University of Florida's online bachelor's degree program offers students an accessible, agile format for completing their degrees. Photo: University of Florida

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

The University of Florida decided seven years ago it wanted to create an online bachelor’s degree program that mirrored the quality and experience of its on-campus programs. Dr. Evangeline Cummings, assistant provost and director of UF Online, explains what UF did to reach that goal and, most important, serve the needs of all kinds of students. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

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Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Our guest today is Dr. Evangeline Cummings, assistant provost and director of UF Online. U.S. News & World Report has just ranked UF's online bachelor's degree program as No. 1 in the nation, the first time the program has earned the top spot. UF also has several other top-ranked online programs in education, master of business administration, engineering and non-MBA business programs. The ranking also named UF's online programs as among the best in the country for veterans.

This recognition says a lot about the leadership of Evie and her team and I'm looking forward to hearing about the programs and how they've made them so successful. Welcome, Evie!

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Thank you. Delighted to be here.

Nicci Brown: This is such a significant achievement. So first, congratulations! Before we get into the specifics about online programming, could you share with our listeners a bit about your background and how long you've been at UF and how you came to be interested in online learning in the first place?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Sure, I'd be happy to. So, I'm actually a Gator by birth and degree. So, I was actually born in Gainesville way back when, was here for my undergraduate degree, went on to graduate school at Johns Hopkins and settled into a pretty comfy federal career in Washington, D.C., never thinking I would come back to the University of Florida!

But I was delighted in 2015 to be invited back to help lead this new fancy undergraduate program that was UF Online that was going to buck national trends and create a highly engaging and amazing undergraduate online experience. I guess I've been here about eight years and I'm just delighted to be with you today to think about how far we've come.

This is an image of Evangeline Cummings, who is facing the camera and has short blonde hair.

Evangeline Cummings is the assistant provost and director of UF Online. Photo provided.

Nicci Brown: The pandemic aside, online programs have increased in appeal for many reasons. Can you tell us what you've seen as far as demand for online education?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: We all know, and we all went through, I guess what I call the great education adaptation of 2020, right, where schools, universities, you know, we witnessed, oh my gosh, incredible change, incredible transformation, incredible adaptation. The University of Florida was proudly already forging this online community for many years. So, when the pandemic was thrust upon all of us, the university already had the great benefit of so much effort by our faculty and 12 different colleges. It had spent many years, again, trying to figure out how do you do that course in a different format? Fortunately, I will say that we were well served by the efforts of our faculty when the pandemic hit.

But I think what we've seen since the pandemic is actually a surge in demand for fully online programs. We've seen it nationally. We've seen it at UF Online and across other top programs, where students, I think for perhaps the first time, were realizing, huh, you know, my son or my daughter, they're online, maybe I should go back to school. I know one of my neighbors, who's a fascinatingly brilliant physician here at UF Health, she was no longer traveling for work during the pandemic. And she thought, "I'm going to get my MBA online."

I think there was this moment of opportunity for a lot of families who were seeing the best of the online opportunity and thinking about how they might better leverage and manage their time. What's really interesting for us to see is, therefore, the changing kind of demographic of our students.

So, before the pandemic, sure, we had predominantly working adults, caregivers, even active deployed military. And then since the pandemic, we're also seeing a rise in the first-time college student, the more traditional age student, the completer, the returner who maybe had a couple years of college before the pandemic and now they're like, "Huh, maybe I want to go back and finish."

I think what we're seeing, and this is something that folks in the online community think about — what happens next? And how can the best of the kind of emergency response, in terms of education, how can the best continue? How can we all learn from what really didn't work well? Nobody likes Zoom university. So, how do we move forward, bringing all of our experience from the past, the best of the response, and then forge ahead and think about the needs of our current students, but also a whole new set of students that are going to be thinking about education in new ways and are residential students, right, they're showing up in the summer and the fall with an expectation, a renewed expectation. Oh, well, my lectures they're recorded, right? Oh, everyone's going to have a Canvas shell and my assignments will just be there, right? So how do we as a university adapt and how can UF Online help play a role in that. It's a fascinating next chapter for us.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. And you mentioned as well that we have faculty who've been looking at this for years and years. I mean, an online program has to be done in different ways for it to be successful.

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Yeah. So, I will say, so I'm married to an epidemiologist, and two of probably the most frustrated parts of the country during the pandemic response were probably epidemiologists and online administrators!

Nicci Brown: Yeah, I Can imagine what your dinner conversations were like!

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: It was riveting. But it was definitely like, oh no, no, we know that doesn't work like that, oh, we know we can do that better. And so that would happen when people were talking about masks, and even when it came to online education, a belief that online meant, well, we'll just go on Zoom. And we have faculty, as you say, who are experts in this, who have spent years thinking through, okay, I used to accomplish this lesson in a face-to-face classroom. How might I teach my students about nutrition in a fully online environment? And they have come up with, not surprisingly because they're amazing, the most fascinating ways to engage their online students on, let's say, nutrition. You could actually send your students to the grocery store. You can have them do things in groups and in teams, they can involve their families.

I think one of the bits of advice I would give folks is they're thinking about what's next, is there's actually this bastion of creativity across our faculty that is just ready to be harnessed for our next phase.

I will say we have some of the best faculty here at the University of Florida for STEM online, including STEM labs — physics, biology, anatomy, chemistry, microbiology, entomology, the list goes on. So, I would hope that we're going to kind of tap more into their wisdom as we go forward. But they've been really thinking about, okay, for students who don't necessarily want to be on campus, who perhaps can't live in the dorm full time, how do we ensure that they have the same fascinating microbiology lab experience? And what does that look like? I find it to be just like a thrilling place to work in that regard because every semester our faculty are coming up with new and creative ways to teach.

Nicci Brown: Could you give us an overview of the online bachelor's degree programs here at UF and how many are we talking about? What are the options that we're talking about?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Sure. Yeah. I'm actually really proud that when we talk about UF Online, we're talking about the University of Florida. So, some universities you'll hear about their online program and it's actually a separate campus, it's a separate set of faculty, a separate set of degree offerings. So that's not the case here at UF.

So, when we talk about UF Online, 12 different colleges teach the courses, 10 colleges offer their bachelor's degrees via UF Online. We have 25 bachelor's degrees, 33 different pathways to get to those bachelor's degrees. And when you earn your degree through UF Online and you walk across the stage, as we would love to see you do, your diploma says University of Florida, because you've earned the same University of Florida degree. So, it doesn't say University of Florida online. So, a lot of other institutions you'll have the extension program or you'll have a global program.

And this is authentically the University of Florida. So, students can also apply at many different stages. So, if you want to go to UF at the residential campus, you either have to be a first-time freshman or you have to be transferring to the residential campus at 60 hours. Not so in UF Online. So, we welcome folks that want to start, that have never been to college. Maybe they have 10 college credits or less and they're thinking about I meant to finish and I haven't finished. Maybe they have 60 and they're a transfer student or maybe they already have a bachelor's degree and they want to get another bachelor's degree. So we've not only created, I like to say, a really agile environment where you can get the same degree, but you can also have many entry points to come back and to complete your degree at the University of Florida.

Nicci Brown: So, this is really about meeting people where they are, so to speak?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Certainly. We also know there's about 3 million adults in the state of Florida with some college credit, but no degree. We know folks are working, raising families. We also know careers shift, like, look at me. I had one career in Washington, D.C., and now I'm here in a very different career. Got my doctorate while working as part of my second phase. So, life is long. We have many different careers over a lifetime. And so, the university really needed to become a much more welcoming place in that sense.

When I went here, of course, I was traditional age, full time, got my degree in four years. That's not the case anymore. Students attend many different schools. They tend to be working. So, we at UF Online, wanted to offer students this kind of gateway to all of the wonderfulness here at the University of Florida, but in a much kind of more accessible and agile format, but not also eroding the quality and the reputation of the institution. So, we took on, I would say, an incredible challenge and I'm just so thrilled at where we are.

Nicci Brown: Well, as we mentioned, UF’s online bachelor's degree program is not the only highly ranked program that we have, correct?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: This is true. So, the University of Florida has a fascinating legacy of distance education, correspondence education and, of course, as a public land grant, through our extension, so it should be no surprise that we also now in 2022 are leading the way on these modern formats. Undergraduate, graduate. So yeah, I'm delighted that I think over the last five years, in particular, we're really showing students nationally, prospective students, that the University of Florida can be a destination for them, even if they don't want to come and live in Gainesville.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. It's interesting that you raise that, because it really does align with that tradition of having a land-grant institution making education available to people who it might not have been otherwise available to.

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Yeah. UF Online is really the modern extension program, right? The whole concept there is how is the university fundamentally tethered in and connected to its community, how is it meeting the community where the community is? And also, how are we then enriched by the community? So, especially as we rise to top five, I think it's important we're also incredibly relevant to the students across the State of Florida, to employers. So, we're also partnering with employers across the state that, especially in today's job market, you're not only seeing career shifts, you're seeing the Great Resignation, you're seeing employers also thinking about how to retain, recruit workers. And a lot of major corporations are starting to add education as a benefit. And so, this also at UF Online positions the university to also meet employers where they are and support students while they're working full time.

Nicci Brown: Could you tell us a little bit more about some of the things that we've done to lift the quality of online programming and to really expand on what we've been doing in the past?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Happy to. Yeah, so, the University of Florida online has been committed since day one to quality, to engagement, to a small class size. So, our average class size is 28 in UF Online. All of our courses are taught by faculty here at the University of Florida. Our instructors are highly qualified. So, a lot of the things that U.S. News looks at, we were looking at already, which is how do we ensure the quality of instruction, the engagement. And also, we go a little bit farther than our residential campus when it comes to academic advising. So, each online student also has a dedicated personal academic advisor assigned to them. We not only look at the classroom, the academic environment, but the support and the services for students as well.

The university also embraces online students with 24-hour IT support, full access to the library. So, I'm really proud that when we have built UF Online and expanded it, we've always been mindful of how to serve students best. How to ensure they have an authentic experience, they're Gators from day one. We say this all the time. And they're not an afterthought. They're a fully integrated part of our campus community. So, I think that's reflected in what the U.S. News looks at when it looks at online programs — how engaged are students, how qualified are the faculty, and that's clearly a place where UF leads.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like you've got quite the operation. How many people are involved?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: 18,000. No, I'm just kidding!

Nicci Brown: In your dreams, right?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: No. So, the fascinating thing is that our UF Online central team is a pretty small mighty team. So again, the model we chose here at the University of Florida is that this would not be a separate entity. I look at us as kind of a conductor of an orchestra, in all seriousness, like the work, the commitment to students, it's all emanating from the colleges. And what's fascinating is how each and every department brings their culture and tradition into the online space. So, our job is to really make, and I think this way about administrators in general, to make the conditions ripe for everyone to thrive. So that's our small team's job, but to do so through others is our mission. So, we really aim to keep a pretty small central team and to ensure that the colleges are successful in serving their students.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. How does the cost of an online degree or bachelor's degree compare to that of a degree completed on campus?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: The cost is the best part. I will say it is something we don't talk a lot about because there is this unfortunate nuance of pricing that folks think since it's less expensive, it's less in quality. But what we've been able to do, with the state of Florida's support since 2014, is to ensure that our online and students actually pay 40% less than our residential students in tuition and fees.

And I probably should back up and really credit the state of Florida. Back in 2013, the Legislature decided to invest in the University of Florida. 2013! Way before we even knew of a pandemic. There was a strong, continually annually reoccurring investment from the state to say we want to forge this fully online undergraduate community at the University of Florida. And in doing so, students will pay 40% less. So, they pay 25% less tuition. And that includes if they're in-state students or out-of-state students. And they pay way fewer mandatory fees.

Now, the reason for that is because it was considered downright reasonable to not charge an out-of-state student online the student activity fee or the transportation fee. So, there was this belief, I think, grounded in rationality, which was like, you know, maybe if you're online, you're not going to be using the rec center or the buses and that sort of thing. But then a fascinating thing happened, Nicci, where we had online students though, that felt that they were being left out of fees.

So, what we originally thought would be a very out-of-state student population, right, online students, distance students, they'd never want to come here, they'd want to be left alone. It's not the case. Online students are, surprisingly, students. . . . really wanted to interact with campus, were overwhelmingly in the state of Florida. We actually have a sizable, about 1,000 of our 4,000 students are right here in Gainesville. So we had a sizable population of online students that were like, "Hey, I know you weren't charging us fees because you wanted to be reasonable, but I want to pay the fees, I want to go to the rec center. I want to use the health center. I want to ride the buses. I want to have access to discounted athletic tickets." So, the University of Florida responded and now offers an optional fee package, but I'm so proud, we still keep it at 40% less. And if you want to do the fees, you have the option. So, that enables students to really customize their own experience.

Nicci Brown: And that role of the state, I guess, connects to one of the other things that you mentioned earlier as well, and that is growth of business, growth of industry, having this educated workforce and being a step ahead of what people may need in terms of that workforce.

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: And I think it was a strategic decision on their part. You know, if you look nationally, Florida is one of the few states that's really growing in high school graduates over the next five to 10 years. So, it's also becoming an incredible hotbed for advertising for for-profit online institutions and other providers.
The University of Florida was invested in as part of the state's, I think intentionality, to ensure that students across the state, workers across the state, had a homegrown option. A quality option and an affordable option. And we see that today. And, fortunately, across the state university system, there's a lot of really great online programs. And even now at state college across the state, but I think you'll continue to see it, especially the next 5 or 10 years, maybe it's just me. I turn on the radio, I get the Arizona State ad. I get the Purdue Global. My kids know, "Oh, here's that ad for Western Governors on TV. Mom's going to say something." But Floridians really are well served with incredible options across the state for high quality online university programs that are also affordable.

Nicci Brown: Are there any online programs that even you, someone with your background, you look at what they're offering and think, wow, I wish I could take that. Or wow, the way they're doing that really surprises me. I wouldn't have thought of doing it that way?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: For sure. I mean, especially there are fantastic universities across the country that are reinventing, especially labs and STEM courses. I think this is the other thing when it comes to U.S. News rankings, I would say at least the top 20 schools, we're actually friends. So, we're very much thrilled for one another. And what we're doing, excited about it, applauding one another at rankings, and really looking at what each are doing for online. I think the next phase here, ideally, would be connecting faculty by discipline. So, the innovation that you'll see in online really should emanate from the chemistry departments, the physics departments, the writing departments and connecting them, I think is what's going to be fascinating going forward.

I admire folks like Oregon State. They're doing fantastic biology online. UCF is also doing fantastic things. So, this is where I think that as we go into this next phase, students have a lot of options, prospective students, adult learners that are thinking — and maybe some listeners right now are thinking — yeah, I meant to finish and I never did. And so you can really look out there and be confident if you're going, at least in my biased view but I think it's true, if you're looking at top public research institutions that are doing online, you're going to find great options and affordable options. And no matter the state, I think I would really say, look to your public universities and I think they're going to have great options now.

Nicci Brown: And also you spoke a little bit about this before, the students who pursue online programs, how do they compare to the ones on campus? I mean, is there a great difference between them?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: I think we can look at some demographic differences in terms of rates of work and caregiving. So, we know the majority of our online students are working, and of the ones that are working about 60% are working more than 40 hours a week. It's incredible. And they're also, of course, enrolled as students. They're also caring for dependence and they're caring for adult relatives. So, we talk about the sandwich generation, especially women, that are caring for kids and adult relatives.

So, I think if you look at the fully online student, they are going to be obligated elsewhere with responsibilities elsewhere. And so that's, I think, a challenge for the university going forward, is how do we meet our students where they are, given their responsibilities, and then how awesome is it to bring that student into our classroom? So just one example I've mentioned before, but take a criminology class. We will have here at the University of Florida, a UF Online section and a UF main section, all residential students and online students together.

And what you'll get are these amazing moments of traditional age, 19-year-old on campus in the same course with, say, a full-time law enforcement officer in Miami who's with us through UF Online. And just think about the discussions, the learning, the teamwork that can happen, which unlock new conversations, probably not even possible before in some of these classrooms. So, as our residential students tend to skew younger, our online students average is about 26. So, they're not as old as somebody like me, but they're still relatively young, but they're leading these fascinating lives. We also have students in 46 states, 16 countries. It's always incredible to me that have active duty military in our courses and their spouses. It really gives Gators an opportunity to connect with us around the world.

Nicci Brown: You mentioned veterans, but what does make this such a good place for veterans to get their education?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Yeah, and actually UF Online serves students that are not just veterans, but active-duty military, reserves, national guard. There are now tremendous online options for our military-affiliated students. And, actually, I will say this is where the large publics have really had to do some catch up. The for-profit online institutions, really ramped up by the post 9/11 GI Bill and other bills, really swung in to serve our nation's military. And now I'm proud that UF is a Yellow Ribbon School and willing to support those who serve us, both residential and via UF Online. We also have a Collegiate Veteran Support Center, a ton of services available to help folks that are military affiliated and their families.

Nicci Brown: And for those people who are listening who may be a few credits short of their degree and might be considering it, what's the pitch?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: We want you back! So, there are many Gators for a lot of really good reasons, you know, life happens, and I've met some of our UF Online graduates who have returned to UF Online, who were here as residential students lost their scholarship for one reason or another and had to stop out. So, we, in particular, want to welcome Gators back.

So, we have a lot of students who were students, but never graduated, never walked. And they might think that their only option is to come back in person. So, we would be delighted to welcome those folks back. And, actually, previous Gators are considered readmits and they can apply at any time so they don't have to wait for an application deadline. We’d loved to hear from them all the time. And then for folks who are yet to be Gators, who have some college credit, but no degree, we welcome you as well.
We hear from a lot of students, “Oh, I got my AA or I did a few college classes and then I had to stop out and take care of my mom, and I don't know where to start.” So, we also have a fantastic team at our recruitment and outreach center, our one-stop team, you can send them an email, you can give them a call and say, “What are my options? How do I get started?”

We've also just launched a program called Gator Pathways. Because what we've found, some students, especially folks that have credit from before, their GPA might not be in the best shape. So previously UF would say, sorry, we can't accept you at this point in time. Now with Gator pathways, we say, actually, let's help you find a place to start.
So, we're working with Santa Fe College. College of Central Florida, Seminole State Community College. And we're actually going to be adding HCC very soon to, in particular, refer all of these wonderful applicants into UF Online that are almost ready, but not ready just yet. And they could start within our network, within those schools. And then we'll seamlessly transfer them to UF once they've met our transfer requirements. So that's another example about, I think, just UF leading the way to say, not only here's a great online program and we want to welcome you back, but we also know the reality of how hard it is to find your way back sometimes. And we also want to help students do that as well.

Nicci Brown: And I imagine you can find this information online?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Yes, you can visit our website, learn all about Gator pathways. But what I'm most proud of is that you don't have to know your path. So, you can apply, it takes about 30 minutes to apply. Or you could just give us a call and ask your questions.

We have remarkable admissions teams that can help you talk through what credits do you have from where? What might transfer? How's your GPA looking? How are you feeling about it? What might be your best next step? Because, ultimately, and this is what I'm also really proud of, we're here to see students succeed. If we're not your best fit, we're not going to say, oh, you must apply and you must come here. We really want to help students find their best fit online and if that includes us, that's great.

Nicci Brown: And what about those students who have done that? That have come back? They took the opportunity. What do they say to you? How does it change their lives?

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: I mean, I just got chills. I know it's corny, but it's true. So, there is this amazing joy on their faces, and in particular the faces of their spouses and kids. And we see them at graduation where it's a family affair and they're really excited to celebrate their mom or dad. We also have amazing football players that went pro, but, of course, when you go pro you don't get your bachelor’s, you go right into the NFL. And we had a gentleman, Ike Hilliard, who had made a commitment to his mom to finish his degree and he did it through UF Online. And it's just an important moment in folks' lives and we're delighted to celebrate it with them.

Nicci Brown: Well, No. 1 is wonderful, but also challenging, because there's an expectation now, but congratulations on that, Evie, and thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Evangeline Cummings: Thank you for having me.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I’m your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you’ll tune in next week when we speak with UF’s latest Rhodes Scholar, Aimee Clesi.

From Florida February 8, 2022