Learning to overcome distance

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As non-traditional students become the norm, S.C. colleges seek new ways to reach them online

In about a week, thousands of students will cram as many of their belongings as will fit into the family SUV or rental trailer and head off to college.

But the quintessential American college student – 18 to 22 years old, lives on campus at a four-year school, daily life a mix of daytime classes and campus social activities – is no longer the norm when it comes to college attendance.

Today, the “typical” college students are outnumbered by what used to be called the “non-traditional” student – older, working, maybe married with children and mortgages; students for whom daily or even weekly trips to campus for classes are difficult, but who need a degree to advance in their careers or find better-paying jobs.

“What used to be the non-traditional college student is now the majority,” said David McCurry, director of Converse College’s new degree completion program, which targets students who have some college credit but no college degree. “The 18-year-old who comes straight out of high school for an on-campus, residential program is a small portion of those seeking degrees.”

Colleges in the Upstate and across South Carolina are targeting those non-traditional students with a growing array of online courses and even complete programs of study.


OnlineDegrees Video

[WATCH: We hit the streets to ask locals their perspectives on online degrees, the experience of taking an online course and more. Video by Susana Shetler]


TrackingtheTrend OnlineDegreesOptions expanding
Converse College will launch an online undergraduate degree completion program in business administration on Aug. 25.

Furman University is looking to expand the number of undergraduate evening courses that deliver at least part of the curriculum online, said Beth Crews, director of Furman’s undergraduate evening studies program.

And through Palmetto College, the University of South Carolina offers seven bachelor degree programs completely online.

Upstate leaders have said increasing the educational attainment of working-age residents is the way to grow the economy. Income rises with educational attainment, and the likelihood of unemployment falls.

The nonprofit Lumina Foundation says the United States needs to reach 60 percent college degree attainment by 2025 to compete in the world economy.

In 2012, 36 percent of South Carolina residents had at least two-year college degrees. In Greenville County, the number was just under 41 percent.

However, a potential downside to online classes has surfaced in some studies. A working paper from a long-term analysis by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College indicates some demographic groups – often the same groups targeted by colleges for online courses due to accessibility issues  – do markedly worse in online classes than in on-campus classes.

At Greenville Tech, which has increased the number of online sections of its most popular classes, faculty members realize support for online students is as important as it is for on-campus students, said Lenna Young, vice president for academic affairs.

“For us, teaching online is a modality,” she said. “We offer the same amount of help and support for our students but in a different format. Whether it is a face-to-face or online class, the instructor is the first line of seeing whether a student is struggling. Both require good teachers. We don’t let just anybody teach an online class.”


Online cohorts
At Converse, male and female students in the new undergraduate degree completion program will enter in cohort groups and go through the program together, finishing in as little as 16 months, McCurry said. Students must have a minimum of 48 credits to enter the program.

“This is not MOOC [massive open online courses],” said Converse College President Betsy Fleming.

“This is designed around cohorts where students move through the experience together and develop relationships with faculty members. Our residential on-campus program is tied to community building. By using a cohort model, our online students are part of a community as well.”

As a part of a cohort, students have a built-in network. They’ll connect through Google circles, Facebook and Twitter. Classes will include online forums and discussions.

“We’re finding that students are gaining access to information more readily than in the past,” McCurry said. “The teacher is no longer a person who brings information to the class. Students are coming to class with the expectation of learning how to apply that knowledge.”

Converse’s business administration program will include case examples, and students will have the opportunity to develop case examples based on their own experiences in the workplace, he said.
Support both technically and academically is critical to online students’ success, McCurry said. “There will be constant monitoring through the program so students do not feel isolated and alone.”


“The wave of the future”
Converse is actively pursuing other degree completion programs. McCurry said a liberal studies program could be ready for enrollment by next summer, and the school is looking at adding some online graduate programs as well.

“An institution like Converse can no longer service a narrow population,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that every institution of higher learning has to consider online. It’s the wave of the future.”

John Beckford, vice president for academic affairs at Furman University, said the four-year residential experience “is part of our identity,” but Furman will offer an online component to classes when it makes sense.

Furman offers online programs in its undergraduate evening study program, its graduate program for teachers and is looking at collaborating with schools in the Association of Colleges in the South to offer distance-learning classes that students in multiple schools can share. For instance, if the schools want to expand offerings in exotic languages, it may make sense share resources rather than each school having to hire its own professors, he said.




[WATCH: In related discussion of the value of a college degree, UBJ recently hit the streets to ask what people in the Upstate thought about two-year versus four-year degrees for this story. Video by Susana Shetler]