College, Connected: Online Enrollments at HBCUs Continue To Grow

In the past decade, the rate of growth in online enrollments has been “extremely robust,” but holding steady, according to the report, Changing the Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. When the Babson Survey Research Group of Babson College, a private institution in Massachusetts, and the College Board released the report in January, close to 70 percent of administrators surveyed said that online education was critical to the future of their institution. In 2002, that number was less than half.

At the same time, the number of students enrolling in at least one online course in fall 2011—more than 6.7 million—increased by 570,000 over the previous year. The increase may signal why advocates of online learning say they are optimistic about the potential of technology and distance education to offset declining enrollment among traditional students with older, nontraditional ones. It may also mean new opportunities to reach and teach more students and to generate needed revenue for colleges and universities.

When Dr. Roy L. Beasley takes the pulse of HBCUs, which he does weekly when he scours and analyzes the websites of the 105 Black colleges and universities, he’s assured that the growth of online courses and degrees being offered this academic year is moving at just the right pace—“moderate and sensible.” Since 2005, Beasley, manager of Howard University’s Digital Learning Lab, has reported on their progress in “HBCU Online & Blended Degree Programs,” a series of studies that he authored.

With 17 online degree programs to offer students—far more than any other HBCU surveyed—Hampton University’s presence in the online education arena is not new. Hampton President William Harvey ushered in the focus in the late 1990s with a handful of courses. Two years ago, all university courses and programs available online became Hampton U Online. For this, Beasley says, Hampton deserves distinction.

“At this point in time, Hampton University is clearly the ‘Real HU’ when it comes to online programs,” he says of the Howard rival. “Hampton developed its impressive array of online programs using its own resources and its own faculty, expanding its offerings step-by-step, year-by-year.”

While all HBCUs aren’t where Hampton is, they are on a course that’s steady, but not too slow, Beasley says. In fact, he says, HBCUs are merging into the distance learning lane at a pace that mirrors the broader higher education community described in surveys like Changing the Course.

Beasley’s report, considered the only one of its kind focusing on web-based education programs at HBCUs, offered these key findings in 2012:

• In June 2012, there were 24 online or blended degree programs being offered by HBCUs, up from 19 such programs in November 2011.

• Public HBCUs offered three times more online or blended degree programs than private HBCUs—18 to six.

• Nearly half (11 of 24) of the HBCUs offered their programs with “strategic partners”—that is, private vendors that provide the bulk of the up-front money required to market, promote and operate the programs. In return, the vendor firms get a share of the student tuition revenue.

Gearing up for a look at what’s trending in digital education at HBCUs in 2013, Beasley notes that “a few are offering online programs for the first time, and I see that some other HBCUs have expanded the number of programs that they offer.”

Xavier University of New Orleans is among those first-timers, says Dr. Anil Kukreja, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He’s eager to recruit someone to coordinate distance education at the nation’s only Black Catholic university, but when it comes to ramping up the number of online course offerings to students, “we want to proceed slowly and just do it right.”

“And we don’t want to jump out there with online courses to just make money. That’s not our aim,” adds Kukreja. Xavier plans to grow the eight online core courses it began offering a year ago to more than 20, just in time for its summer session. Also planned, Kukreja says, are certificate programs for those in the community in need of retraining and those tailored to alumni who earned degrees in the sciences and health care fields.

But soon, Howard University’s array of online courses and degree programs will also be under one umbrella called Howard-Online or HUOL, says Beasley, who’s been readying the digital initiative for more than two years. For those who want a Howard degree or to take courses but can’t be on the Washington, D.C., campus, HUOL will be their one-stop shop for “high-quality, online and blended degree and certificate programs for nontraditional students,” Beasley adds.

Within seven years, Beasley expects that the number of HUOL courses and degree programs will surpass those at Hampton. Getting to that point at Howard and at other HBCUs could mean focusing on innovation in the use of technology that supports effective teaching and learning for those whom HBCUs have traditionally served—Black males, marginal students and nontraditional strivers.

Online education represents the path HBCUs should take if they want to stay competitive and relevant in higher education, says Dr. Arletha McSwain, dean of the School of Extended Learning at Norfolk State University. Online learning can begin with just one course or a degree program, “but just start somewhere,” says McSwain, who is proud of the stamp of approval the school’s three undergraduate and three graduate degree programs earned this year from the United States Distance Learning Association. Norfolk State is the first HBCU with such certification from the USDLA, a nonprofit company that promotes distance learning in all sectors, including education.

While most students flock to online programs for the convenience and ability to work at their own pace, today’s online technologies aren’t for everyone. When 38-year-old Adrienne Washington ventured back into a traditional classroom at Norfolk State, it was 14 years after leaving a degree program at another institution when she got pregnant in her sophomore year.

Now, with one more year to go before she earns a four-year degree in interdisciplinary studies, Washington says her decision to enroll in online courses was the only way to realize her dream of graduating. Online courses, not traditional ones, were available when she left work at 5 p.m., but they haven’t been without their challenges, mainly time management. Planning mom duty and studying and doing assignments around 8-to-10-hour work days as a grants and contracts specialist, Washington says, can be daunting at times, but, over the years, she’s learned to master the unique demands of online learning.

But today’s online technologies may not benefit all students, Beasley points out. Online education will be as successful as the students who enroll and the faculty who teach them. Beasley says that will mean recruiting students like Washington—highly motivated, able to work for long stretches of time alone, smart and ready to learn.

Otherwise, Beasley says, face-to-face classroom learning or a blend of online and traditional education may be the way to go for those marginal and struggling students. Most often, they are Black students, especially Black males. They are the ones, Beasley says, who have traditionally benefited from academic support services found on brick and mortar campuses, even more reason why HBCUs shouldn’t be in a rush to expand their online enrollments.

“There are gaps in the retention rates and graduation rates between Black and White students at most colleges and universities, and the larger gaps for Black males will be even larger in online programs that do not exclude students who lack the stronger motivation, time management and capacity to work alone that today’s online programs still require,” says Beasley.

But, as he looks down the digital road at the emerging technology and pedagogy, Beasley suggests there will be good news to report.

“In a few years, online teaching techniques will get better and better,” he says. “They will become more effective for more and more students, and, in the not-too-distant future, online courses might become as effective as face-to-face or blended courses for all students, no matter what their motivation level, capacity to manage time and capacity to work alone.”