The moon rises next to the Century Tower at the University of Florida as seen from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla., on May 5, 2012. (Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun)

Some 3,100 students accepted as freshman by the University of Florida for the fall got a big surprise along with their congratulations notices: They were told that the acceptance was contingent on their agreement to spend their first year taking classes online as part of a new program designed to attract more freshmen to the flagship public university.

The 3,118 applicants accepted this way to the university — above and beyond the approximately 12,000 students offered traditional freshman slots — did not apply to the online program. Nor were they told that there was a chance that they would be accepted with the online caveat. They wound up as part of an admissions experiment.

The new program, begun in 2015, is called the Pathway to Campus Enrollment, or PaCE, and according to Steve Orlando, senior director of the university’s media relations, it “allows us to offer admission to additional qualified applicants with academic potential and demonstrated success.”

“The market for freshman is by no means clear anywhere in the country,” UF Provost Joe Glover said in an interview. “We are trying different things to identify that market. That is one of the motivations.”

It also allows the school the chance to expand enrollment in its new online undergraduate program, which was created by the state legislature in 2013 with $15 million for start-up and initial operational costs, and which began serving students in 2014. State legislators are eager to expand online learning at state universities as well as in the K-12 sphere. The Florida Virtual School opened with state funding in 1997 as the first online public high school in the country, and in 2000, it was declared an independent educational entity by the state legislature.

Glover said that PaCE “didn’t fully exist” last fall when admissions seasons opened for fall 2016, and that it only recently became operational. Many families were taken by surprise, he said; his office has been deluged with phone calls from parents with a lot of questions about the program.

Under the PaCe rules, degree-seeking students accepted into the program must spend a minimum of two semesters and complete at least 15 credit hours online. After earning a total of 60 credits — up to 45 credits may come from previous college credits earned through AP, IB, Dual Enrollment or other accelerated methods — and meeting program requirements, they may move from online learning to the campus as residential students.

In-state freshmen who agree to enroll in PaCE will pay 75 percent of what residential students pay for tuition (current in-state fees are $6,310 for 30 credit hours). Because they do not pay the activity and services fees, they do not have automatic access to campus recreation centers but can purchase the same meal plans as residential students.

Glover said that the school typically admits about 13,000 students for the freshman class and yields about 6,400 or 6,500 from that group. He said that PaCE is “an experiment” and it isn’t clear how many of the 3,118 students accepted for PaCE will accept, but based on traditional enrollment patterns, they expect no more than 10 percent, and that not all of them will decide to become residential students.

Pearson, the largest education company in the world, is doing “ancillary services” for the new program, Glover said, but all of the content and teaching is being done by UF faculty.