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Distance courses provide web of options for schools
Building Blocks

With more than 1.1 million students enrolled in Texas' public community colleges, technical colleges, universities and health-related institutions, schools are running out of space, said Ray Grasshoff, director of special projects for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB).

"We're trying to enroll more students, so if you enroll more students, where are you going to put them?" Grasshoff said. "Years ago, we'd just build more buildings. Now we're looking at how to increase capacity at locations we already have."

Colleges and universities collect tuition and fees from students that help defray everyday operational costs, but the state helps fund new facilities and rehabilitate old buildings, Grasshoff said. Community colleges use local property taxes to fund building construction. To get money to build or rehabilitate facilities, schools must appeal to the Texas Legislature for Tuition Revenue Bonds (TRB), raise private donations or use tuition and fees to cover building expenses.

During the 2005 legislative session, colleges and universities requested more than $3.1 billion in TRBs; the Legislature authorized $1.9 billion during a 2006 special session, according to THECB.

Funding futures

Historically the Texas Legislature has assigned TRBs then appropriated money to pay the debt. "Generally, it's a bond and someone buys the bond, like some big financial institution, and they give the money up front to build the building," Grasshoff said. "But then you have to pay that person interest on the money that you have in effect borrowed from them. As far as the state's contribution, most comes from TRBs and paying the debt on the bonds."

But the state isn't obligated to pay that interest and doesn't always allocate money for that debt even if it does approve the bond. During the 2006 special session, the Legislature approved bonds for institutions without setting aside money to pay debt service, Grasshoff said. The Legislature could, however, appropriate the money in 2007.

The Legislature usually has its own methods for picking which projects get funded, but the process changed in April 2006.

"During this special session, the Legislature wanted THECB to get more involved," Grasshoff said. "We developed an evaluation system that had a point system to assign points based on various factors. That's what we gave to the Legislature.

"The Legislature in turn took that and made their own decision as to which projects they should authorize TRBs for or not. They looked at our evaluation as a starting point."

Freeing space

Schools that don't have the geographical space or the money to expand or rehabilitate buildings are left in a bit of a pickle.

"Enrollments have increased across the state, and there are any number of reasons why that has happened," Grasshoff said. "[There's been] growth in college-age population, increased persistence rates--or more students staying in college rather than dropping out--successful outreach efforts, increased financial aid and the state of the economy."

The University of Texas at Permian Basin (UTPB) is one of the state's fastest growing universities with nearly 14 percent growth in 2003, 8 percent growth in 2004 and 6 percent growth in 2005, said Bill Fannin, provost and vice president of academic affairs.

Each semester, UTPB works with a nearly 50,000 square foot deficit, meaning there isn't enough physical space for all students. That forces administrators to get creative, Fannin said.

"The deficit grows every time you add a student," he said. "We're really trying to meet the needs of the students and at the same time, reduce our time in the classroom to free up space."

To free up classroom space, UTPB offers courses online, at off-site locations, on weeknights and weekends.

Forty percent of UTPB courses are taught during the evening and 14 percent through Web-based instruction, Fannin said.

Options galore

To help colleges and universities enroll more students and get the maximum amount of use out of their current facilities, THECB recommends several of the methods UTPB uses.

"[Distance education courses] could be Web-based, courses online, interactive video conferencing where students in a remote location can take them and interact with the instructor via an interactive video system," said Kevin Lemoine, the program director in THECB's division of academic affairs and research.

Distance education courses also can encompass classes taught by CD-ROM instruction, by television, by faculty members traveling to different institutions and by correspondence. To get the word out about distance education courses, THECB launched the Texas Distance Education Web site in 2001. The Web site, www.texasdistanceeducation.com, allows all Texas schools to list the distance education courses they offer each semester.

As of June 2006, 54 community colleges, technical colleges, universities and health-related institutions were registered with the Web site, Lemoine said.

They posted more than 3,000 courses for the 2005-06 school year.

The Web site also features universities and colleges that offer full degree programs online, Grasshoff said.

Self-reliant students

Distance education classes are important because they have the potential to provide access to individuals who wouldn't otherwise have it, Lemoine said.

"It could be people who live in rural areas where there isn't a higher-education institution in the area, for individuals who work and where regular on-campus classes don't fit their schedule," Lemoine said.

For some people, these classes are necessary, said Monica Comeaux, a financial aid quality control coordinator with the University of Houston (UH).

"You have your typical, traditional student, and then you have, especially at UH, so many students who are an older generation or parents that work full-time," she said. "For them it's the only way they can go to school."

Comeaux graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003 and took three alternative education courses while in college. One course required her to travel to Mexico and Spain to study Hispanic cultures and to write a 10-page paper for credit; one featured an online do-it-yourself project that a professor loosely supervised; and the other was a communications class.

To receive credit for the online course, Comeaux had to log into a course Web site a set amount of times per day or week, and take quizzes and turn in assignments online. All lectures were presented in Power Point presentations available online.

"It made it easier that I didn't have to be on campus for that particular class at a particular time," Comeaux said. "I could do it at 10 at night, or 2 in the afternoon."

While Comeaux had a good experience with alternative education courses, she doesn't recommend them for all students.

"It's not a good idea for every student to do them," she said. "They need more direction than just watching online presentations or tapes. You don't get to ask questions and for hands-on help, talk to the professor after class or even a teaching assistant. These [online] classes have professors, but who's going to contact them?

"If you're an independent person who can handle that type of thing, when that's the only thing you can do, it's a good option."

Ann Holdsworth

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