Flexible Access Funding Evolves to Support Student Success through Online Learning

student at picnic table

Recently, DELTA has made changes to the Flexible Access funding model to allow for the creation of online classes that fully meet student demand. Photo by Becky Kirkland.

On July 1, 2000, Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) began as an organization under the NC State Provost’s Office. Shortly after its inception, DELTA established Flexible Access as a funding allocation mechanism to incentivize the development and delivery of online classes by colleges, departments and individual faculty. Flexible Access funding was an annual budget allocated based on enrollment headcount and course characteristics such as its number of credit hours and whether or not a lab was included. 

By 2009, NC State’s distance education program had risen to include 11,059 individual students and totaled 21,162 enrollments. That same year, distance education began following the UNC System’s Semester Credit Hour Enrollment Funding Model, which categorized courses as resident credit for on-campus courses or extension credit for online, off-campus or distance education courses. Under this model, the university receives funding for both categories of credit hours, and DELTA is funded from a percentage of the extension credit enrollment change representing distance education. 

However, in 2012, there was still one thing standing in the way of on-campus students taking advantage of online classes — the tuition surcharge. 

“We had concerns for years about the inequities resulting from the different tuition models for campus and online courses,” said Senior Vice Provost for Academic Outreach and Entrepreneurship Tom Miller. “When those models were originally put in place, no one expected distance education courses to be so popular among our on-campus students. We had to do something to fix the problem.”

The Provost’s Distance Education Task Force was asked to examine NC State’s tuition model and recommend solutions to eliminate the tuition penalty for full-time, on-campus students taking distance education courses. They recommended, and it was approved, that tuition for on-campus degree-seeking students should be the same regardless of the course format. 

For the first time in more than a decade, when full-time, on-campus students registered for fall 2012 distance education courses, the price tag for taking their class in a lecture hall or taking it online was exactly the same. As a result, the percentage of the on-campus student population taking one or more online courses increased by one-third. Looking just at the undergraduate population, there was a 44% increase in the number of full-time, degree-seeking students who enrolled in a distance education course.

As a result of solving the tuition surcharge concern, DELTA’s Flexible Access business model was ultimately made unsustainable. Because DELTA no longer received additional funding for on-campus students, it was unable to support enrollment growth in Flexible Access online classes and overall enrollment had to be capped. In 2019, to solve the problem, DELTA elected to convert Flexible Access classes to a distance education program in each college.

“Flexible Access played a very important role in the early days of DELTA,” according to Miller.  “We had always expected to grow out of it at some point as more and more campus students saw distance education as a viable option for progress to a degree.  We knew in 2012 that if we succeeded in making online options widely available to campus students, Flexible Access would eventually need to go away.  That required a great deal of thoughtful planning for fairness, equity, and fiscal sustainability.”

After developing the proposal internally and in discussion with the Provost’s Office, DELTA consulted with the colleges that had the largest Flexible Access enrollments, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Sciences, to refine the plan and work out how it could be implemented.  DELTA presented the final proposal to the Council of Deans in December 2019 and the implementation date was set for July 1, 2020. Assistant Vice Provost for Business Operations Jessie Sova and Associate Vice Provost for Online and Distance Education Tim Petty met with college leadership teams throughout January and February of 2020 to review and answer questions about the transition.

Converting Flexible Access classes to a distance education program in each college allowed academic units to have control over class scheduling, enabling them to increase section sizes, schedule new sections as needed to meet student demand and at the same time manage funding independently. 

“The tuition change in 2012 removed an obstacle that limited on-campus students from taking online classes”, says Petty. “The funding model change of 2020 is intended to remove an obstacle that has prevented colleges and academic departments from growing online classes to fully meet student demand.” 

Some students take distance education courses to accommodate schedule conflicts with their job or other courses. Some take distance education courses because they learn better in an online environment. Some take distance education courses because campus sections are filled and they don’t want to delay a course until the next semester. No matter a student’s reason, DELTA is committed to supporting academic units by creating business systems and funding models that better allow them to enhance student success through online learning.