Most college students today do not live on campus, go to school full-time and have their tuition bills paid by their parents. According to Complete College America, 75 percent of students juggle their classes with a family, a job or a commute — and local colleges and universities are responding to their needs by making more degrees available online.
Online classes are seen as a key to increasing the number of Americans with a college degree. Distance learning programs provide adults the flexibility they need, which could help close the gap between the 57 percent of new jobs in the state that will require a college degree by 2018 and the 36 percent of working-age Ohioans who currently have that credential, according to the Lumina Foundation.
“You can earn an entire degree without actually ever coming to a campus,” said Linda Lockhart, of Ohio University’s eLearning program.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has challenged the nation’s governors to raise the number of college degree holders in their state to 60 percent within eight years. That statistic would push the U.S. back toward being the first in the world for college graduates. It’s now 14th in overall degree attainment, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The number of online learners and the revenue it is generating are rapidly growing locally and nationwide. More than 6.1 million students in the United States took at least one class online in 2010, up from 1.6 million in 2006, according a report, “Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States.”
Locally, for example, Clark State Community College in Springfield saw a 72 percent increase in the number of students taking an online class over the last five years, up to 4,500 students last year.
“What’s driving a lot of the demand for higher education are these working adults,” said Jonathan Robe, research fellow at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
“With their desire to move up the career ladder, they need more education to get a better paying job or get a promotion. They don’t have the time or the convenience of quitting their job and going back to school,” he said.
Local colleges and universities are responding by offering more online, from a signed language interpreting bachelor’s degree now available from the University of Cincinnati to Cedarville University’s plan for a new master’s degree in business administration.
Demand has even drawn Columbus-based Franklin University, which offers online degrees, to open a new branch campus in Beavercreek. Franklin offers degrees students can earn completely through the Internet or with a combination of distance and in-person classes. The private, nonprofit university specializes in helping community college students complete their bachelor’s degree.
The flexibility means students, “get to pick and choose and make it work for them,” said Sandra Brubaker, director of Franklin’s Beavercreek location on Pentagon Boulevard.
Troy resident Jackie Prouty completed her bachelor’s in accounting completely online through Franklin while caring for her three children, as young as 3 years old at the time. She was even able to continue her studies as her husband underwent cancer treatment, she said.
“I could do it in the evening when my husband was here. I could do it when my son napped,” she said.
Helping the bottom line
Distance learning programs are helping Ohio schools draw students from around the world and are providing a much-needed boost to their financial bottom lines.
“It’s getting harder and harder to support a program that is just on campus,” said Cedarville’s Andy Runyan, associate vice president for the college of extended learning and dean of graduate studies. “There’s a lot more expense to it. And we see online as a way of helping diversify our revenue.”
Even as Cedarville’s traditional master’s degree education program saw enrollment dip, the new online degree is growing, he said. And online helps the Baptist-affiliated school reach students who are involved in ministry projects around the world.
Miami University saw revenue from its summer online classes grow to $2.9 million in 2012 from $1.5 million in 2010. Even as summer enrollment overall declined, online enrollment grew 26 percent during that time, according to Miami. The university has an e-Learning Advisory Council discussing the future of Miami’s online offerings, said co-chair Cheryl Young.
This fall, Ohio University avoided a decline in enrollment seen at almost every other school that transitioned to a semester calendar, largely due to an 800-student increase in its eLearning program. The five-year-old program has 5,196 students this fall.
“It’s attracting a different segment. It’s not that we’re taking students who would come to campus anyway and putting them online. It’s truly a different population,” said Lockhart, manager of communication for eLearning OHIO.
Local schools are leading the way through new territory in online learning. The University of Dayton’s engineering program said they may be among the only schools in the nation to offer students the choice to attend class in person or watch it on the Internet live or taped.
Sinclair Community College recently won a $12 million federal grant to design three new online, competency-based information technology degrees and certificates. The college already offers six associate degrees and six certificates through distance learning, said spokesman Adam Murka. The number of students taking an online class has increased 31 percent over the last five years to about 12,700.
Antioch University Midwest, located in Yellow Springs, will soon begin offering college credit for students enrolled in massive open online courses (MOOCs). Antioch is the first institution in the country to offer credit for classes through Coursera.
Still, change across the nation has been slow. Only about 8 percent of undergraduates age 30 or older were enrolled in an online degree program in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And faculty overall have not embraced the new technology, Robe said.
“They are very skeptical of it,” he said. “It’s something that they are not used to. They kind of view it as well, ‘This is not the way higher education does thing.’”
Reviews are mixed from students, as well, said Jill Lindsey, Wright State University’s chair of educational leadership at the College of Education and Human Services.
“Some students absolutely the love the freedom and the independence that they feel from online learning and being able to do it in their pajamas at 3 in the morning. And then there are others, but they say, ‘I would have liked the opportunity to meet people face-to-face,’” she said, adding Wright State is considering creating social networking opportunities for students in online classes.
Robe said most colleges take what they do in the classroom and make it available over the Internet — which has not resulted in lower tuition or savings for students. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity does note students can save money by not commuting or living on campus.
“I’m hopeful that we can figure out a way to bring more online programs up and running, but I do think it will take some time. We still have some work to do,” he said.
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