State University of New York Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher delivers...

State University of New York Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher delivers her fourth annual State of the University Address at The Egg in Albany, N.Y. (Jan. 14, 2014) Credit: Cindy Schultz/Albany Times Union

The State University of New York launched expansion of its online degree curricula Tuesday and is poised to lead the nation in offering public higher education to students worldwide.

Through "Open SUNY," New York residents, out-of-state and international students can earn the same degrees over the Internet and will pay the same tuition as that of students in traditional campus settings.

"Online education is arguably the hottest topic of the day, but I want to be clear: This isn't about SUNY being trendy. It is about making sure New Yorkers have the educational opportunities they need to be successful in the 21st-century economy," SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher said in introducing the initiative during her fourth "State of the University" address.

The initiative, first announced last year, debuts with eight fully online degrees, including a bachelor of science in electrical engineering offered by Stony Brook University.

SUNY is among several state university systems across the nation -- including those in California, Florida, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin -- using online degrees to expand access to nontraditional and underserved students, boost college completion rates and contain higher education costs.

New York has one of the largest public university systems in the country, enrolling 465,000 students across 64 campuses. With Open SUNY, officials are primarily trying to reach nontraditional students, including the 6.9 million adults in the state who have a high school diploma but no college degree.

"New York is leading the way in terms of online public education. There are a number of private schools who have been doing this, but they [SUNY officials] are certainly leaders by making it possible for someone to get a degree through online programs," said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution and author of the 2012 book "Digital Schools."

Little data exist about completion rates for online degrees through public universities, West said. Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, private ventures that offer free courses taught by some top-tier university professors, have a completion rate of only 5 to 10 percent, he said. Students do not earn a degree through MOOCs.

SUNY currently offers more than 12,000 courses and 150 degree programs online. The degrees coming online this month through Open SUNY will have the added benefit of 24-hour student technical support, tutoring services and faculty training, Zimpher said.

Officials Tuesday could not say how much was spent on Open SUNY's expansion. The goal is to enroll 100,000 students in the program over the next three years, with the business model to be self-sustaining through tuition revenue, officials said.

More fully online degrees will roll out in September, Zimpher said.

"We are joining forces with our colleagues at Binghamton University and the University at Buffalo to make a difference," said Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., Stony Brook University's president. "We look forward to implementation of Open SUNY -- a worthy and timely initiative led by Chancellor Zimpher. This is truly an exciting time to be involved in higher education in New York State."

The online bachelor's degree in electrical engineering has about 40 matriculated students. All coursework is online and the laboratory kit is mailed to the student. It is the same rigorous program as the on-campus course, Stanley said.

Stony Brook faculty have been offering online classes for some time, said Stanley, who endorsed SUNY's online push but called it "a working business model."

Information on Open SUNY

-Enrollment goal of 100,000 students over the next three years.

-New offerings of eight fully online degrees through six different campuses, with plans to add more in September.

-Online students pay the same tuition as campus students but save costs on fees, housing and meal plans.

-Center for Online Teaching Excellence will train and support online faculty.

-Open SUNY will include 24/7 technical support and tutoring services for enrolled students.


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