Louisiana colleges lagging in online degree programs

Louisiana didn’t have a good showing in U.S. News and World Report’s 2013 ranking of online degree programs released Wednesday, with only four universities ranked in the top 200.

However, the state’s poor representation on the list doesn’t necessarily mean Louisiana programs are lacking in quality, college administrators said.

Instead, they offered a number of reasons why Louisiana schools might be lagging behind counterparts in other states. The most likely reason, they said, is that Louisiana’s programs are newer and haven’t had time to establish themselves.

LSU, for example, has had a smattering of online programs in the past, but didn’t really make a strong push into the online marketplace until March. Southern University also just recently got into the act within the past year.

Of the Louisiana schools included in the U.S. News rankings, Loyola University had the best showing, coming in at 32nd.

Of the state’s four public university systems, the nine-school University of Louisiana system had the best showing with three of its schools receiving the following ranks:

Northwestern State University in Natchitoches came in at 108th.

Nicholls State University in Thibodaux ranks 141st.

The University of Louisiana at Monroe is ranked 160th.

Other Louisiana schools were listed in the report, but were not ranked.

Karla Hughes, the UL system’s executive vice president and provost, attributed her system’s representation on the list to the fact the schools have been at it longer than other institutions from around the state.

Hughes said the mark of a good online degree program is one that is designed around an already strong traditional program at the school.

“You have to draw on the strengths of the institution and the faculty has to be committed,” Hughes said. Another hallmark of a strong program, she added, is one where schools incorporate a broad range of student support services.

Of the UL system’s three ranked schools, Nicholls State is the only outlier, having only rolled out its online degree programs in the past year.

Hughes said the school benefitted from being a part of a network of schools that already has a strong track record in online programs.

Nicholls State also offered financial incentives to faculty, rewarding them for retaining students from enrollment through graduation, a practice that is common at other schools around the country, Hughes said.

The deputy commissioner for planning, research and academic affairs with the Louisiana Board of Regents, Larry Tremblay, said he wasn’t surprised to see so few Louisiana schools on the list.

He said Louisiana schools, including LSU and Southern haven’t “really been playing” up until recently. Conversely, schools in the UL System, many of which are located in rural areas, were quicker to recognize the need to offer online programs. Northwestern State, for example, has long been considered one of the state’s leaders in online education.

Tremblay also noted that the U.S. News ranking counts only 100 percent online programs, while many Louisiana schools offer so-called hybrid programs where students are required to travel to a campus a few times over the course of completing a program.

Tremblay said he believes the relative youth of Louisiana’s online programs is the main reason only four schools made it onto the list.

“I’d hope that if you looked at a similar survey four or five years from now, we’d probably be better off,” he said.