The University of North Carolina system’s online ed venture isn’t yet reaching as many adult students as leaders had hoped. And, three of our reporters are nominated for national awards.


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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

Online programs try to cater to adult students. It’s easier said than done.

Project Kitty Hawk, the University of North Carolina system’s $97 million foray into online education, was created to serve the state’s adult learners and boost enrollment at its public universities. 

We dug into Project Kitty Hawk this week in a story written by veteran journalist Pam Kelley and published in partnership with The Assembly in North Carolina. (This is one of several story partnerships that we’re running with local newsrooms around the country, part of our new approach to catalyzing in-depth higher ed coverage.) 

Despite the promise of the program, it has run into significant problems in its first few years. Pam’s story breaks them down in detail, but there’s one particular challenge I want to highlight today: There are just 72 students enrolled now, and leaders have had to nearly halve their enrollment projections. By 2028, Project Kitty Hawk is expected to have 14,800 students, instead of 30,800. 

It’s far from the only online education program that has run into trouble — Calbright College and Purdue Global come to mind, as Rick Seltzer noted in his newsletter with the Chronicle of Higher Education (where we co-published the story this week.)

Failing to reach adult learners is a problem for the state of North Carolina, where there are more than a million people with some college credits but no degree. And while many colleges say they want to attract those students, it’s much easier said than done, as Amy Morona at our partner Signal Cleveland has reported

Part of the issue is that online education initiatives “act like they’re the first ones to come up with the idea,” and fail to learn from each other, Phil Hill, an educational technology consultant who publishes the On EdTech newsletter, told me in an interview this week. 

Hill said it’s as if “all you have to do is just say “Oh we’ve discovered this group of some college, no degree’ and we can reach them, and just that novel idea is enough to work.” 

One reason it isn’t working: Project Kitty Hawk programs cost more than existing online programs on UNC campuses, because they’re self-supporting and not counted in the campus’s state funding formula. North Carolina Central University’s bachelor’s of nursing completion program via Project Kitty Hawk costs $350 per credit hour for in-state students — that same degree, subsidized by the state, costs $189.48 per credit hour at UNC Charlotte, Pam found. 

“The benefit of public four years offering these programs is the lower price point which Kitty Hawk compromises,” Iris Palmer, director for community colleges with the Education Policy program at New America, told me in an email. Adults who want to enroll in online programs are already “very well marketed to by the current online options out there,” she said. 

So what will it take to attract those students? Hill says that’s contingent on getting more universities on board — there are just two now — and offering the courses at a cost that makes sense. More university partnerships could happen slowly over time, he said. 

++ Phil wrote some smart analysis in response to Pam’s piece — you can read it here.

Three national education award finalists 

Three of our reporters were named Education Writers Association award finalists this week. They are:

  • Charlotte Westour staff reporter covering higher ed in prisons:  Judges said Charlotte’s work is  “an impressive package of articles about a topic that is not covered enough by education reporters.”
  • Kate McGee,our reporter at The Texas Tribune: Judges praised Kate’s even-handed reporting and commitment to holding Texas higher ed leaders accountable. Her reporting shows how the “state government was pressing on higher education in ways that could (and in some cases did) cause irreparable harm to the institutions in the system.” 
  • Molly Minta,our reporter at Mississippi Today: Molly shows “doggedness in the reporting and pursuit of confidential documents,” the judges said.

Read more about their work.

++ Help us continue to fund excellent beat reporting around the country. Donate to Open Campus today.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

The wind industry has reshaped the horizon on the eastern edge of Texas’s Permian Basin. (Photo by Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune)

From Texas: Sneha Dey, at our partner The Texas Tribune, traveled to Sweetwater to explore how Texas State Technical College is training the next generation of wind technicians.

The college has the only wind tech training program in the state, and the scarcity of such programs means hundreds of jobs could go unfilled in the coming years. With Texas politicians taking aim at the industry, a lot would have to change for the state to be ready for a wind energy future.

“If you don’t have that skilled talent … you’re not able to do the preventative maintenance. You need that workforce to complete those tasks day in and day out and do it safely.”

Kevin Schroeder, who works with the wind energy company Invenergy

From CaliforniaAdam Echelman at our partner CalMatters sheds light on a disturbing trend: Fraudsters enrolling in community college, applying for federal aid, and then vanishing. The state’s community colleges have given out millions of dollars to those so-called Pell runners in recent years.

“This is getting significantly worse,” said Todd Coston, an associate vice chancellor with the Kern Community College District.

From Indianapolis: Our reporters continue to cover FAFSA problems around the country that are keeping families from completing the form and slowing down aid calculations at colleges. Indiana has an April 15 deadline for state aid, and completing the application is required for all students this year. But FAFSA completion is down 20% in the state compared to this time last year, Claire Rafford reports at Mirror Indy. 

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