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VOL. 39 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 23, 2015

Online degrees gain acceptance at work

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Marilea Pickens completed her bachelor’s degree totally online from Trevecca Nazarene University.

-- Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Trevecca Nazarene University

Each year, more college students are opting to replace the classroom experience altogether with degrees achieved entirely online.

Online degrees no longer carry the stigma once attached to them because of their association with unaccredited, for-profit “degree mills” churning out diplomas of limited value.

Now, students can earn online bachelor’s, master’s and even doctorate degrees from the comfort of their own home from a large and growing number of accredited colleges, including Tennessee’s public university systems and some of the most prestigious institutions in the country.

And few employers blink twice anymore at the online credential.

“My boss definitely wanted me to have the education, and he was very supportive with working my schedule around it,” says Marilea Pickens of Jackson, who earned a fully online bachelor’s degree in management and human relations this spring from Trevecca Nazarene University, a respected, 114-year old faith-based university in Nashville.

“If I needed advice on how to get things done he was always there to help me with that, too.”

Pickens, who works at a 25-person bridge construction and repair firm in Jackson, says her degree was critical to growing in her career. Prior to getting her bachelor’s, Pickens worked for the company part time. Now she works full time and her duties have expanded.

“It did help in my career,” she says. “It has broadened my horizons here.”

“Distance learning” is a concept that dates back to correspondence courses by mail. Early in this century, online classes and degree programs from schools like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University got lots of hype but little respect.

Over time, though, traditional, accredited public and private universities have begun to accommodate busy adults with flexible online courses that offer the same academic rigor as campus-based degree programs: even Ivy League Columbia University, which has an engineering school that is ranked 14th in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, now offers a fully online graduate engineering degree.

And many universities such as Louisiana State, which offers nine online master’s degree programs, no longer differentiate diplomas they award for online degrees from those earned on campus.

Tennessee residents can earn bachelor’s or master’s degrees fully or partially online through the UT system (UT Knoxville, UT Health Science Center in Memphis, UT Chattanooga, UT Martin, UT Space Institute in Tullahoma, UT Institute of Agriculture, and UT Institute for Public Service.)

And, residents can also earn degrees from the Regents Online Campus Collaborative, which includes the degree-conferring universities Austin Peay State University, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University and the University of Memphis, as well as the community college system from which students can transfer in credits.

Adults with jobs and families are still the main candidates for online degrees: Trevecca’s average online student is 36 years old.

Eades

“They’re going back to school to better their career trajectory or fulfill a dream of a college degree,” explains Dr. Timothy Eades, associate provost of graduate and continuing studies at Trevecca, which began offering night programs for adults in the mid-1980s and online classes in 2010.

But Eades anticipates that average age dropping as more students are exposed to online learning in high schools.

That trend is borne out nationwide.

According to The Learning House, an online program consultant for colleges and universities, 34 percent of students enrolling in online undergraduate programs this year were younger than age 25, up from 25 percent three years ago.

The number of under-25s in online graduate programs was 19 percent, up from 13 percent in 2012.

This year, Trevecca has expanded its online degree offerings to every academic level: associate, bachelor’s and master’s in several majors and, in January, a doctorate degree in education.

The university currently has about 300 students enrolled fully online, most from Middle Tennessee, and the number is growing faster every year.

“The future is: many more,” Eades says.

Degrees are in career-enhancing majors pegged to the faith-based university’s mission and local employer needs: Christian ministry and religion, business management and leadership, education and health care administration.

Class sizes average about 15 students, and there are no residency or campus requirements. Students in a class, or cohort, begin together and move through the program together, but can access course materials and study as their schedule allows, as long as they keep up with the calendar.

Classes are taught by Trevecca faculty and designed with help from experts at the school’s Center for Innovative Instruction, who also help professors incorporate technology into their campus-based classes.

At many universities, cost per credit hour for online programs is generally the same or less than for campus-based degrees. But total cost can be significantly lower.

Students entering Pickens’ online bachelor’s degree completion program at Trevecca must transfer in 40 hours of credit from an accredited institution, such as a community college. After that, the cost is $395 per credit hour, or $14,200 for the 18-month, 36 credit hour program.

Pickens had financial aid for about half her tuition and is paying off loans on the other half. Her employer, she says, plans to help pay them off.

When she enrolled, Pickens had already earned a two-year associates degree from Jackson State Community College while juggling two jobs and raising four children. A bachelor’s degree had seemed out of reach because of the classroom requirement.

“I didn’t have dedicated time that I could take away from my family and my jobs to go and further educate myself,” Pickens explains.

“I had spare time at odd times. But when they came in with the option where you didn’t even have to leave your house, there was no excuse. That was a great big selling point for me.”

The college degree wasn’t just a credential for career advancement, Pickens says. It was also a personal goal.

She is the first woman in her family to go to college.

“My mom went from high school to being a secretary and having kids. She progressed on her own in that way,” Pickens adds.

“But nowadays you cannot just go straight out of high school and work your way up. You need the education to back you up, and I wanted to be the first one in my family to get a degree.

“I didn’t care that I was 40 years old when it happened. I did it.”

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