For a growing number of students, cyberspace is the classroom.
by Rick A. Richards
The landscape of traditional four-year colleges in Indiana hasn't changed all that much in the last half century. The same universities that were around then are here today.
But that doesn't mean the higher education landscape hasn't changed. There are more options open to students than ever, thanks to online technology. Students who found a traditional college experience didn't work for them because of a job or family commitments are signing up for college, this time using their laptop for a classroom.
Those students are, on average, about a decade older that traditional college students, which means they're not as interested in the social activities of a college campus. Indeed, Gov. Mitch Daniels recognized that shift and his administration created WGU Indiana, a virtual university where students interact with professors and each other online.
“WGU Indiana gives working Hoosiers a great opportunity to obtain an affordable, accessible, high-quality online degree that meets the highest academic and professional stands,” says Daniels.
Daniels says that philosophy won't change when he takes over as president of Purdue University in January. “There is, as far as I can tell, zero overlap between the students who are going to go to Purdue University and those for whom WGU is the right fit, so I think these are really complementary institutions,” says Daniels in a prepared statement.
Chancellor Allison Barber says an education through WGU is less expensive than a traditional four-year institution. In fact, she says, at $6,000 a year, it's about one-third the cost. Additionally, she says the average age of a WGU student is 37 and more than 70 percent of them work full-time.
“I'm very passionate about this,” says Barber, whose roots are as an elementary and middle school teacher in Merrillville. “One in five people in Northwest Indiana have enrolled in traditional higher education and haven't finished their degree. WGU allows them to keep their job, attend college and make it cheaper for them.”
An online education allows people who couldn't otherwise afford to go to college to get a degree, says Barber. She points out that over the past 10 years, costs at traditional colleges have risen nearly 100 percent.
“We have more people in Indiana with college debt than we do with a college degree,” says Barber.
“What I hope WGU does is advance our state. By 2018, it's predicted there will be 900,000 new jobs in Indiana, and of those, 500,000 will require post-secondary education. We have to do better because Indiana ranks 42nd in states with residents with college degrees,” says Barber.
The Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University says only 28 percent of the state's 3.1 million workers have college degrees, compared to 39 percent nationally. Additionally, just 19 percent of all Hoosiers have a college degree.
In the two years WGU has been in existence, 2,600 people have enrolled. So far, 260 have graduated, but Barber sees those numbers climbing rapidly in coming years.
“Every one of our students is partnered with a faculty member who calls once a week to make sure they're up to date with their studies,” says Barber.
She brushes aside the critics who say college is more than just class work. “Because our students are older, they're not interested in the social aspect of campus life. Eighty percent have been to college once or they're at a point in their lives where they don't need a fraternity or a football team.”
Through online peer-to-peer communities, Barber says students are able to interact with each other, just as they would at a student center or in a study group.
The University of Phoenix has been at online education for 25 years. It was founded in 1976 as a traditional college campus and today it has campuses and students across the United States. The University of Phoenix has created a unique mix of regional campuses where students can take a few classes if they choose, but most work is done online, says Jennifer Khadivar, associate campus director for Northwest Indiana in Merrillville.
The University of Phoenix has two campuses in Indiana and more than 200 across the country. Besides Merrillville and its 1,800 students, it also has a campus in Indianapolis, where about 4,000 students are enrolled, 70 percent of them female.
In Merrillville about 72 percent of the students are female. For both campuses, the average age of students is 34.
“We offer opportunities for students who cannot attend traditional classes,” says Khadivar. “For the people who want to go to college today, we simply don't have enough bricks and mortar facilities to educate them all.”
She points out that some major universities like MIT and Stanford are now offering online classes.
“Maybe someone is working full-time or has children and can't attend a traditional classroom. For them, we provide a dynamic and rigorous classroom they can attend on their laptop,” says Khadivar.
The numbers speak for themselves, she says. Only 27 percent of undergraduate students enrolled today are in what is considered a traditional university.
“We think we're redefining what a traditional classroom is,” says Khadivar.
At its root, she says any university should impart two basic skills to its students – critical thinking and collaboration. “Those are skills every employer wants,” says Khadivar.
“We have such a tremendous group of students enrolled. Our goal is to do what we can to help them get a college degree,” says Khadivar.
Another pioneer in online education is Indiana Wesleyan University. Its traditional four-year campus in Marion has about 3,500 students. Online enrollment, however, is nearly 16,000 students.
Marlon R. Mitchell is dean of IWU's Northwest Indiana Region campus in Merrillville. The university also has campuses in Fort Wayne, Kokomo, Lafayette and South Bend, along with a campus in Naperville, Ill.
Mitchell says the online student profile for IWU is similar to other online universities. The average age is somewhere between 33 and 34, compared to 20 to 21 on a traditional campus.
“We've been working with adult learners for 25 years. We've learned to keep up on what adults desire in an education and we've made a shift on offering our classes,” says Mitchell.
That shift has moved from classroom study to a blend of class work and online programs. “Our largest enrollment is for our health care, human resources, information technology and general business degrees,” says Mitchell. “We're also seeing an increase in the number of students interested in counseling.”
Because most of Indiana Wesleyan's students are older, Mitchell says the university has worked hard at providing flexibility so they can work their study time into their schedule. “That's why remote learning is so important,” he says.
Years ago when online learning was first taking hold, Mitchell says an online degree was viewed by many as inferior to a degree granted by a traditional university. That has changed over the years because more online schools have become accredited and built a solid reputation.
“We work hard to maintain our accreditation,” says Mitchell. “Our biggest challenge over the years was to smoothly get technology in place that would complement the human capital we have in our instructors.”
Mitchell points to statistics compiled by IWU that show between 70 and 75 percent of its graduates remain in Indiana to work. He says that's better than some traditional campuses in Indiana, where the retention rate can be as low as 20 percent.
Numbers from the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University show that 58 percent of Indiana college graduates were working in the state for one year after graduation. But by five years after graduation, only 47 percent remained in the state.
“What we have allows our students to have the best of both worlds,” says Mitchell. “The technology allows us to create a diverse world for our students and our faculty. Any time there is change like this people get concerned and bad information gets out. Now that we've been at it awhile, people see how it works and they're comfortable with it.”
David Gidcumb also has seen an increase in the number of online students enrolling at Ivy Tech Community College's Northwest campus in Gary. Gidcumb, the executive director of computer services and distance education, says Ivy Tech has made a considerable investment in computer hardware and software to accommodate students.
“We've found out that online is simply more convenient for many of our students,” says Gidcumb. “What we've learned about the skills required for online education are the same skills that are the bible for the workplace as well.”
This past spring semester, Gidcumb said some 50,000 students were enrolled, both on campus and online.
“We can't afford to build new buildings like we used to. That's why we've gone this route. We're now seeing a lot of our students using smart phones and tablets for online learning so we're constantly updating our capability,” says Gidcumb.
Part of the reason for the uptick in enrollment, says Gidcumb, is the down economy. As people lose jobs, they want to become proficient in something else.
A side benefit of the online effort, says Gidcumb, is that it's making the campus more “green” because it and students are using less paper and less ink to print reports.
Even though Ivy Tech has 14 regional campuses, Gidcumb said each has autonomy to provide classes that its students want.
“You know, we started as a vocational school, but we've come a long way,” says Gidcumb. “We're providing a personalized, hands-on degree for our two-year and four-year students. Our reputation has skyrocketed in recent years because of this. People know about Ivy Tech.”