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Long-Distance Education Raises Worries

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CHAPEL HILL — From the perspective of the University of North Carolina, it's only doing what the General Assembly has ordered. From the perspective of the state's private colleges and universities, its educators have one more thing to worry about in a highly competitive market. At issue is UNC's pilot program to offer college courses at off-campus sites across the state.

Extension classes have been around for decades, but students have been charged full cost of the university's operating expenses. Under the new plan, students will benefit from state subsidies so that tuition will be as low as it is at the state's 16 campuses.

This long-distance education is also seen as the harbinger of more changes -- college courses by videotape, cable TV and computer -- that will enable students never to come to a college campus.

Legislators had hoped the long-distance learning approach will ultimately benefit the state's rural counties, but private colleges say it threatens to put them out of business.

John Brock, vice president of Gardner-Webb in Boiling Springs, said, "It would be no big deal if (UNC) came into Ashe county and Cherokee, where they need it. They're coming to places where we've already established the market." Brock said that in one case, Appalachian State University, one of UNC's 16 branches, will offer the same course in the same building as Gardner-Webb does.

"UNC is a juggernaut," Brock said. "They can do what the want because they have the power, influence and money, which we don't have."

Rep. Robert Grady of Jacksonville said, "We can't guarantee success to the publics or privates. It will be a challenge to everyone to stay afloat."

Hope Williams president of the North Carolina Association of Independent Colleges and Universities said there is room for compromise. "I hope we can come to some kind of understanding. North Carolina is a big state. There are a lot of people who need higher education who are not getting it."

The courses will be offered through East Carolina, UNC-Wilmington, Appalachian State and UNC-Pembroke, and may be taken at community colleges and military bases in eight counties: Burke, Carteret, Cleveland, Craven, Moore, Onslow, Richmond and Rutherford