Unpacking UC’s Stance on Online Degrees

The University of California’s decision to close loopholes allowing students to piece together online degrees triggered concerns that online degrees may be considered inferior.

9 minutes
By: Aila Boyd

The University of California System, which has 230,407 undergraduates, caught the attention of the higher education field earlier this year when it clarified its stance regarding online undergraduate degrees. 

The move consisted of revisions to two Senate regulations, 610 and 630, which require a minimum of six units of in-person courses during a quarter/semester for one year. The decision was made by the UC Academic Senate. This governing body exercises direct control over academic matters of central importance to the university, such as the granting of degrees and authorization and supervision of courses and curricula. 

Dr. Melanie Cocco, an associate professor in both the UC Irvine School of Biological Sciences and School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, chairs the University Committee on Education Policy. Her committee is responsible for the regulations. The question of online degrees was sparked when Cocco’s committee received its first proposal for an online degree program. 

“There were a number of problems with it,” Cocco explained. “It ended up not being approved.”

The proposal brought to light the fact that students could piece together a largely online degree due to the system’s increase in online course offerings. As of this past fall, 8% of the system’s undergraduate courses were offered online.

“We could lose our accreditation if we start inadvertently offering online degrees because we aren’t accredited to offer an online degree,” she said regarding the need for the regulation revisions.

Even though students could have theoretically pieced together an online degree, Cocco isn’t aware of any students who did so. However, the COVID-19 pandemic muddied the water, so she admits some students could have made it through with nearly all online instruction. 

“That was an unusual situation,” she said. 

Is UC Against Online Learning?

Despite the move’s aim at clarifying the system’s position, it triggered questions about ramifications for students and the industry. Cocco stressed that the regulation isn’t anti-online learning, but simply stipulates that a relatively small number of credits must be taken in person. 

In fact, students can break it up and do the year of classes part online and part in-person if that works better for their schedules. It is also important to note that students can be granted a variance which would exempt them from the requirement. 

“They would have to have a rationale,” she said. 

Despite the system stating that students must take a minimum number of classes in person, some students could face stricter in-person requirements. 

“A number of the campuses have decided they want to limit the number of online courses a student can take,” Cocco noted. 

In-Person Equals Better Outcomes?

She explained that the system isn’t simply requiring students to be on campus because of arbitrary reasons but rather because it thinks doing so will lead to better outcomes. 

“We’re very proud of the fact that most of the UCs have close to a 90% graduation rate,” Cocco stressed. “If you look at the online degrees, they aren’t good.”

State law requires that one-third of its students be transfers from either California Community Colleges or the California State University System. The requirement still applies to students who completed their transfer credits in person. Going from either of those two settings into the UC system can be quite challenging. 

“We’d like them to have an onboarding process because it can be a bit like drinking from a fire hydrant,” Cocco said, noting that being on campus for a year can help them adjust. 

The need for some in-person instruction is heightened for undergraduates because they may be unprepared and need extra attention, she said. There’s also a societal value in in-person instruction, Cocco noted. 

“If we’re going to have a society where people will get along and interact well with each other, we need to have those interactions,” she said. “Having students sit with people who look different than them […] there’s a lot of value.”

Online Does Not Mean Inferior

Despite the system wanting its undergraduates to have an in-person learning experience, Cocco said those who earned online undergraduate degrees elsewhere are not at a disadvantage when applying for one of the system’s graduate degrees. In fact, the system does offer some online graduate degrees, such as UC Irvine’s Master of Advanced Study in Criminology, Law and Society—the first online UC degree. 

Senate Chair Susan Cochran’s 2022-23 UC Systemwide Academic Senate Overview from September 14, 2022, noted that, prior to the pandemic, the system offered very little online instruction but that the pivot to remote instruction showed many in the Senate the “best and worst of what it has to offer.” Her overview went on to note that two proposals from various campuses for online degrees had been received by the University Committee on Education Policy at that point.

 “We are seeing substantial pressure from Regents and the administration to increase access to the UC through the use of online instruction,” she wrote. “Expect this issue to consume a lot of our attention going forward.” 

Institutions With Online Degrees Weigh In

Despite what Cochran said about the decision opening “the door for campuses to experiment with online majors and minors…that will benefit undergraduate students,” it nonetheless caught the attention of leaders at predominantly online institutions, like Purdue Global and Western Governors University. 

When asked by Volt to comment on the decision, communications officials at Western Governors University pointed to a letter to the editor President Scott Pulsipher recently published that they said “dives deep into WGU’s perspective on the decision and how the shift toward online learning is making higher education more flexible and personalized such that it meets all learners, regardless of their circumstances, where they are.”

Pulsipher described the UC system as being “frozen in the past” and basing its decision on “information that is outdated and easily debunked.” 

“By ‘closing this loophole,’ the Academic Senate Committee has inadvertently missed an opportunity to learn more about the needs of the contemporary student and how more flexible pathways could expand access, improve quality, and result in better outcomes,” he wrote. 

Frank Dooley, chancellor of Purdue Global, said parts of the decision confuse him. 

“You have to respect an institution’s decisions,” he said. “There’s a governance process, so I respect what they do, but I worry that they’ve closed some doors to themselves that they didn’t have to close. In doing so, they might not have considered some of these other cases where an online option might make sense for certain populations of students.” 

He pointed to those who may be living elsewhere for internships and those who have issues going to a physical campus due to diversity, equity and inclusion concerns as examples of students who may need online degree options. 

Jennifer Mathes serves as CEO of the Online Learning Consortium, a collaborative community of higher education leaders “dedicated to advancing quality and leadership in digital education.” She agreed with Dooley and noted decisions like the one the UC system made are dependent on the culture of the specific institutions.

“They feel it’s necessary for them with the students that they serve,” said Mathes. “Is it necessary as a whole? I wouldn’t make that as a general statement because there are plenty of institutions that have proven you can do a quality program for students where they aren’t coming to a campus in person because they’re able to get the same or similar experience through online programs.”

Cocco pushed back on some of the responses,“I feel that it’s a spectacular lack of imagination to not think you can have an online degree that has a little bit of in-person experience.”

Despite the reaction of predominantly online institutions, it’s clear that they aren’t serving the same type of student the UC system does. In fact, the UCs, which “emphasize research and theory,” are also different from their counterparts—the California State Universities, which focus on “hands on” instruction and are oriented toward career preparation. Cal State Online does offer several fully online degrees.

“It’s a totally different population,” said Dr. Anthony Picciano, a professor at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center with expertise in administration and supervision and instructional leadership. “Students who go to Western Governors University are totally different from the University of California System.”

That fact is evidenced by the new marketing campaign Purdue Global rolled out in April. “This Is My Comeback” focuses on working adults, according to R. Ethan Braden, executive vice president and chief marketing and communications officer at Purdue University and Purdue Global. 

“It’s a very different group of individuals; they’re generally a little bit older than the students you see on campuses—oftentimes for us an average age of 32,” said Braden. “They often have a family and dependents. They’re often first-generation college students.”

Jacque Yates, a 2021 Master of Public Health graduate, is serving as the campaign’s ambassador. The flexibility of Purdue Global is what led her to enroll. 

“I have a busy life that consists of several moving parts so committing to sitting in a classroom for two years wouldn’t fit with my lifestyle,” said Yates. 

As for her marketability in the workforce, she described the stigma associated with online degrees as being “outdated,” especially for those attached to a physical campus. Additionally, she said obtaining an online degree showed employers that she was “able to not only navigate in a digital environment but thrive.” 

State of Online Education

A 2023 report from Bay View Analytics seems to indicate that many of the community college transfer students who will end up in the UC system are open to online learning. It found that 56% of those surveyed are more optimistic about online learning than they were before the pandemic. 

Optimism aside, students are now more familiar with online learning than ever before. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in the fall of 2021, 59% of students at 5,831 institutions were enrolled in distance education courses. Although it should be noted that graduation rates for institutions like Purdue Global do tend to be lower than those of the UC system.

Cocco isn’t convinced the pendulum has permanently swung in the favor of online learning. She pointed to a program that has been offering a lot of online courses, which allows students to either sign up for the online or in-person version of the classes. When given that choice, students have only been signing up for the online versions 25% of the time. 

“They actually like having a little bit of online [experience], but they like going into a classroom and meeting people,” she said. “A lot of my students have been happy to be back in person.” 

Gary Bertoline, senior vice president at Purdue Online and Learning Innovation at Purdue University, agrees with Cocco. He noted that because the pandemic resulted in a dramatic increase in online learning, the trend may reverse itself to the point that fewer people will be learning online than before. 

“Instead of returning to the mean, you actually go below the mean,” said Bertoline. “I think part of that is happening.” 

He explained that a recent lull in online degree enrollment may trigger institutions to start reevaluating their programs, many of which were quickly pulled together at the start of the pandemic. 

“They probably didn’t take the time to make the courses interesting enough or different enough from a talking head. They didn’t invest in online; they simply threw out a bunch of online courses and degree programs,” said Bertoline. “I question whether the mad rush to get into online education didn’t result in a quality issue, which probably turned off a few students.” 

Best Practices Moving Forward

Cocco feels that is what happened with many of the UC system’s current online courses, describing the quality as being “mixed.” That’s why her committee “wanted to make sure any online degrees that are offered are planned out.”

Mathes advises those in education not to confuse emergency remote learning with deliberate online learning. 

Despite the lull, Bertoline sees higher education as being in a state of transition given just how open traditional college-age students are to online instruction. He said leaders like himself are obligated to experiment to figure out what the next version of higher education will be.

“I think there’s a place for online education. There are certain students that can’t travel or have work schedules,” Cocco admitted. But she cautioned that the best online programs are small and have lots of engagement activities. 

For online learning to be successful, Mathes noted, courses and programs must be designed with online modalities in mind. 

“It comes down to teacher engagement, she said. “If the teacher is still engaged in online learning, the students are going to be more successful.” 

Dooley feels Purdue Global’s online degrees can be looked to as an example of what Mathes has referenced. 

“We take in mind the student experience and the time they have,” said Dooley. “We want them to be focusing on studying and learning the material, not trying to navigate.” 

To ensure quality is maintained, the institution has a three-year review cycle in which departmental faculty and instructional designers look at the entire curriculum. 

“Our goal is to have the finest online experience possible,” Bertoline said. 

Bertoline noted that he has approximately 50 staffers, called teaching and learning technologists, who are “constantly looking at best practices and emerging technologies.” Investment in similar positions could prove helpful for institutions that are looking to increase their online offerings.

Bertoline added that the division he runs also decided against offering fully online undergraduate programs. However, the idea of doing so is being discussed internally. “We would probably only do it for the programs with the most interest. We have about 80,000 applicants for about 8,000 students every year,” he said. “We’re getting to the point where we’re having to turn away a lot of very, very talented students that would like to come to Purdue.” 

The question of how an online degree will be viewed by employers largely seems to come down to the institution. Highly respected institutions that offer online degrees shouldn’t be confused with online diploma mills, Picciano insisted. 

“If they have a good reputation and move some of their programs online, they will be respected for it,” said Picciano. 

The UC system’s approach to offering a hybrid option resonates with both Bertoline and Picciano.

Hybrid learning likely has staying power, Bertoline stressed, “Especially coming out of the pandemic, there have been many surveys of students that said they like doing some of their courses online, not all of them but they do want to do a few. It gives them flexibility in scheduling and more time to do other things.” 

Picciano noted that the entire higher education enterprise, including advising, counseling and administrative services, has meaningfully integrated online elements into its DNA. “

We’re in the blended university environment,” he said. “I think we’re going to continue this way.”

He also agreed with Cocco’s justification that undergraduates often benefit from some in-person instruction because they have a deficit of basic skills. 

“If you put those students in a fully online environment, they may not be as successful. They may have severe reading problems or can’t write,” said Picciano. “There’s a big difference in undergraduate and graduate degrees.” 

Despite the uncertainty of the future of online learning, Bertoline feels there’s room for both online and in-person learning.

“I predict you’re going to see a crossover at some point where the amount of interest in online programs is going to be greater than that for traditional residential programs,” said Bertoline. ‘I’m not predicting residential programs are going away.”

Either way, the residential experience is being narrowed to the academically gifted who earn scholarships and those who come from families that can afford it, Picciano explained.

Next Steps for UC System

“We have some people in the administration who view online education as a money-making endeavor; we aren’t going to do that,” Cocco insisted. 

Despite the concern of some in higher education, she noted there wasn’t a significant amount of internal pushback from UC students and faculty. 

“The pushback came from faculty who said, ‘Now we can never have an online degree’,” said Cocco. “But I responded, ‘No, you can do an online degree that’s got a little bit of in-person.’” 

Some students also expressed a desire for more classes to be offered online, which she said the Academic Senate is open to exploring. 

“We want to do this move to online education in a thoughtful and planned way,” she said. 

Cocco’s committee is currently drafting guidelines for best practices for online classes, which will include engagement requirements. 

“We’re hoping we can get everybody above a certain bar for quality,” she said. 

None of the system’s programs have been approved to be online programs, but Cocco expects some will be approved soon. If they are, she expects part of the rollout to include training in how to learn online and special advisors who can help with the technology.

“You could put together a hybrid program. It’s not binary. It doesn’t have to be all online or all in-person. It can be a mixture,” said Cocco. “That could actually be a quality experience. We’re hoping to explore that space.”

Editor’s Note: Susan Cochran, 2022-23 Academic Senate Vice Chair James Steintrager and UC Director of Media Relations and Press Secretary Roqua Montez didn’t respond to Volt’s requests for comment. 

Aila Boyd

Aila Boyd


Aila Boyd is a Virginia-based journalist and educator. As a journalist, she has written for and edited daily and weekly newspapers and magazines. She has taught English at a number of colleges and universities and holds an MFA in writing.

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