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Colleges adapt to adults’ needs by going online


Daniel Scroggins earned a bachelor’s degree just after high school, but later found it did not match the career he wants.

So at 30 years old, the full-time desktop support specialist is back in school studying information technology security.

Scroggins is the new majority for college students. They are not 18-year-olds living in dorms on mom and dad’s dime, although that may be the typical image that comes to mind. Today, 75 percent of students juggle their classes with a family, a job or a commute, according to the nonprofit Complete College America.

Catering to their needs is important because the country must produce 1 million more non-traditional graduates every year to meet workforce demands, researchers say.

“People need to be retrained, recredentialed,” said Ed Klonoski, president of Charter Oak State College, a public online college in Connecticut.

“Our economy is driven by the incumbent workforce. If we only concentrate on 18-year-olds, we missed the boat.”

Adults look for different options

Americans owe more than $1 trillion in student loans, and nearly half of the people who graduated college are underemployed, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

So nontraditional students are asking more questions about the return on investment for their degree, Klonoski said, and they are increasingly turning to competency-based programs.

“Instead of just taking a traditional classroom format and distributing it online, we actually blow the model up,” said Joan Mitchell, spokeswoman for Western Governors University, which has 40,000 students.

Scroggins chose Western Governors. For a flat rate of about $3,000 for six months of classes and e-books, he works through courses as quickly as he can in his own time. He hopes his new degree will help him move up in his company.

“I really need the flexibility, because a lot of times I have to work at night,” the Englewood resident and Fenwick High School alumnus said. “I don’t have enough time to be sitting in a classroom.”

About 1,000 Ohioans are currently enrolled through Western Governors. And its model is spreading.

Sinclair Community College recently launched new competency-based information technology programs developed with a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The program includes a faculty adviser and a coach to help students stay on track.

“The goal of the grant is to allow students to complete more credits in less time so they can graduate faster and get a job,” said Nancy Thibeault, dean of distance learning and project director for Accelerate IT. To speed their progress, students can begin a new course every Monday instead of only at the start of a semester, she said.

Klonoski’s competency-based college allows students to take assessments and create portfolios to earn credit. Since the college was founded, 127 Ohioans have earned 146 degrees and certificates.

“Learning is an activity, it’s not a location,” Klonoski said. “To an industry that’s built huge infrastructure around learning, here we are saying: ‘That’s nice.’ You do not need infrastructure for people to learn. That’s part of what’s rocking higher education.”

More go online

Competition is high for online students, but that won’t mean the end of brick-and-motor schools, Klonoski said.

At Ohio’s public colleges and universities alone, the number of online students increased 229 percent in just eight years, according to the Board of Regents. And that is just a slice of the Internet student population. Public, private and for-profit colleges across the country also compete for Ohioans.

Local colleges add programs every year to serve students here and draw them from around the world.

“You face that competition whether you’re on the ground or online. People have a lot of choices,” said Joseph Cronin, of Antioch University Midwest.

His university, which has offered online classes that require students to log on at a certain time for a classroom-like experience, will launch a new program in January allowing students to do their classroom online whenever they would like. The Antioch University Connected program will offer lower tuition, although the exact amount has not yet been set.

“The idea is to make this more accessible and affordable but provide a high-quality experience,” he said. “There’s a certain type of education that you get here that you don’t get elsewhere, and I want that to come across in these courses.”

Wittenberg University expects to add degrees to its @Witt@Home, through which students alternate weeks online and in class.

“We have surveyed our adult students and they prefer that interaction with their peers and their faculty,” said Fetneh Ghavami, director of professional studies. “They prefer this to completely online.”

Getting credit for what they know

Adults in Ohio could also benefit from a statewide project launched this year to encourage colleges to award more credit for work and military experience. With $180,000 from the Lumina Foundation, the state will ask colleges to expand and promote “prior learning assessment” programs.

“It allows them to actually earn credit for life experience that would be equivalent to some our coursework,” said Martha Crawmer, a dean at Clark State Community College.

Prior learning tests and portfolios can help adults graduate faster, but many college administrators agree not enough students are taking advantage.

“This is one of the ways we can make people more comfortable with coming back to school. We can say: You have the knowledge and you can do this,” said Heidi Pettyjohn, from the University of Cincinnati.

Ohio’s leaders have said the state needs more college graduates to compete for jobs, but the education attainment rate here is actually decreasing to 35.5 percent, according to the Lumina Foundation, a national nonprofit.

Adults are finding that they need a college education to land a new job after the recession or advance in their workplace, and many are turning to online programs for their convenience.


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