When colleges & universities can’t (or won’t) keep up

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with the president of the university I worked at.  The president spoke about keeping up with the times but mainly how to do it while increasing enrollment and maintaining affordability. He asked for suggestions, opinions, and answered questions about the future of our school. Being a former mayor of our city, allocated funding issues and public relations were more his niche. At least, that’s what I believed.

It was about this time that I had applied to the school to work on my bachelor’s degree in history. As an employee, my tuition would be covered 100% and I would be transferring my college credits over from a large community college turned state college I’d been attending for a few years…via online courses. I had taken traditional courses before when I had the time. It’s just not that easy to do when one works full-time and is a single parent (a true single parent, none of this co-parenting existed). Night classes presented childcare issues and I preferred not to be enrolled in a course with dually-enrolled high school students who, let’s face it, couldn’t transition so easily from their 4th period gym class to being in a room full of tuition-paying adults.

I also missed tucking my kid into bed at night so I opted to do my classes, when possible, from home.

The university president continued to talk of larger and more popular state schools being our competition, such as University of Florida and Florida State University, and he wondered aloud at what could be done to make ourselves stand out. How could our mid-size university become better with what we had to offer, that being a fantastic array of degree options and affordable tuition compared to the bigger schools?

I asked him, “Would our university ever consider offering degree options online?”

The president replied, “Oh, no. We want to preserve the integrity of our school. We wouldn’t want to diminish the quality of our education with online courses.”

I was insulted. I did not argue with him or try to change his mind in any way, but I was fully aware that UF and FSU (as well as many other state universities, large and small) offered degree options online at the time. Isn’t that how you keep up with your competition, by not only doing what they do, but by doing it better?

My co-workers and I headed upstairs to our offices and got back to work, but this nagged at me for hours. Finally, I asked a few of my directors who hadn’t attended the roundtable for their opinion on the president’s feelings toward online degrees. To my surprise, all of them agreed with him. One even went so far as to tell me that if she were presented with two equally competent and experienced job applicants but one attended a traditional program and another completed a degree program online, she would hire the applicant who actually “attended class”.

I have learned quite a bit in the last few months of researching other degrees and there are quite a few online bachelor’s and master’s degree programs available all across the country. For example, Harvard University offers a bachelor’s degree online for liberal arts majors. And both Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities offer a master’s degree in museum studies online.

Tell me again, Mr. President, how exactly have these two prestigious schools failed to preserve their integrity and diminish the quality of one’s education? Because that’s quite a low blow.

I ended up getting laid off a month after receiving my acceptance into the history program. Without a job, I couldn’t afford to drive back and forth to classes every single day, much less pay university campus fees and university-level tuition. And what if I found a new job that wouldn’t work around my class schedule? I took myself back to my less expensive state college and worked on my bachelor’s degree online. My former employer, that mid-size university, had already made it clear to me that they weren’t willing to help me or even deployed service members become graduates of their school.

When I get my degree in December, do you know what I will have printed on it? It will say that I graduated from University of Oklahoma, not University of Oklahoma ONLINE because she was too lazy to attend an actual class. I fear the for-profit colleges and universities are to blame for the negative reactions people give and receive at the mention of earning a degree online. I don’t want this to discourage people from doing it anyway.

Here is what I have learned from working on my degree online:

  • how to multitask
  • time management
  • how to meet deadlines
  • how to complete research with limited resources (as in actual human interaction and immediate responses)
  • online etiquette
  • direct communication skills
  • how to fly solo on a project

If you want a degree, get a degree. If Harvard is willing to offer an online option, that’s saying something. It means that the good folks at Harvard, and a hundred other colleges and universities across the country, understand that times have changed. People have had to put off their education goals to raise families or work two and three jobs. It also means another revenue source for these schools and another way to get their school names printed on degrees that will be celebrated by families and that’s damn good marketing.

I think it’s a shame that some places of higher learning consider it a step down in quality to cater to those of us who can’t afford the time or the outrageous campus fees to earn their degrees. Perhaps it’ll catch up to them, perhaps it won’t. But in the meantime, so many universities are accepting the students and the tuition payments currently being refused by others. Take advantage of it.


2 thoughts on “When colleges & universities can’t (or won’t) keep up

  1. Thank you for this well-reasoned address to Online v. Brick-and-Mortar. There was a time when it took a lot of research to find reputable schools that offered online degress – there were a LOT of ‘diploma mills’ that didn’t really teach and just wanted your money. They weren’t accredited (or were accredited by institutions not approved by the US Dept of Ed). Nowadays, those have nearly disappeared because of the government stepping in. Aside from all that… I have attended classes on the ground and online, and online is BY FAR more difficult. Because of its very nature, there is more self-teaching involved, more personal accountability for time management, and more – gasp – actually having to learn to think for oneself. Brava to you for being so close. That gap is closing rapidly for employers who see an online education as somehow less valid, so keep a chin up!

    • I thought about you and others I know who are in this same online-learning boat. I don’t think we’re sinking! In fact, I don’t think we’re much different, except having gained more life experience as we waited for our college moments to finally appear! I agree, though, that online courses have taught me a few things about details and pushing myself to complete projects on my own.

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