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Minority Students Turning to Online Schools for Advanced Degrees

Colleges have long despaired over how best to attract more minority students into advanced degree programs. But it’s not a problem at a number of schools where students earn their degrees online, which are seeing unexpectedly high minority enrollment.

That includes Minneapolis-based Walden University, a for-profit, accredited school that is in the top ranks nationally for minority graduate enrollment in several degree programs. This summer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine listed Walden as one of the top 10 schools in the nation for master’s degree in education, to people of color, seventh in business doctorates to Blacks and in the top 20 for awarding doctorates in psychology to Hispanics.

Students and education experts say convenience and flexibility is one driving factor for those who go online to seek degrees. And some minority students say there’s another less quantifiable factor: acceptance.

“Everyone, to me at least, is judged on a fair basis,” says Carolyn Estes, a Black woman pursuing a doctorate in epidemiology through Walden. “When you’re online, nobody’s a minority.”

Estes says she sometimes felt judged for her skin color when she was earning a chemistry degree at the University of Illinois.

“I like working alone,” says Estes, 26, who lives in suburban Chicago. “I have a good experience with the discussions online. I get to meet people in honesty.”

Walden leaders say they’re tuned in to the diversity of their students and are trying to reach out to people of color. This summer, they hired Manuel Tomas Barrera, a past chairman of the education department at Metropolitan State University, as dean of the College of Education. He’s part of a larger outreach to Hispanic groups.

Walden’s minority enrollment jumped from about 600 in 2001 to 3,500 in 2005, with most of that growth in graduate programs. Data compiled by the University of Chicago showed Walden awarding 108 doctorates to Black students from 2000 to 2004 — more than Harvard or Berkeley.

Still, Walden President Paula Peinovich discounts the notion that minority students like online learning because it allows them to conceal their race. She says when students are asked why they chose online learning, the answers don’t differ much by race or ethnicity; more often, they like the convenience of online classes and the ability to tailor their learning to their interests.

Another factor, according to some in the field, is that more minorities tend to seek higher education later in life, when they’re employed and need a degree to advance.

Still, research has shown there are still barriers to minority acceptance on traditional campuses.

As part of a study, Nancy Greer-Williams, an administrator at Howard University, interviewed many minority doctoral students who describe what she called “chilly” climates in university departments. She wrote that many college leaders “have failed to build bridges between underrepresented students’ sociological and cultural factors and their doctoral programs.”

But Greer-Williams isn’t yet convinced that online learning is a potential equalizer.

“That remains to be seen,” she says. “I’m not questioning the quality but I wonder, do (students) get the same mentoring and experience? Those are questions we really need to look at.”

–Associated Press


Reader comments on this story:

There are currently 3 reader comments on this story:

“more than data and information”
On-line access to higher education is a reality not likely to diminish as the cumulative effects of high tuition fees, gas prices, depressed wages and personal schedules work against the traditional model for attaining an education. What minority students must be mindful of, is that the “education” one receives in any program is more than  data and information. Networking with professors, being present for scholarly interaction (with guests as well as on-site profs)and generally getting “connected” to the rigors of one’s field are still very personal activities. There IS  important mentoring going on for those still making themselves available, and distance learning, with its benefits, looms dangerously close to excluding the very people who want to be recognized as serious scholars.

-Dr. Millicent E. Brown
Greensboro, N.C.

“learning how to optimize the experience”
I am currently enrolled in an online PsyD program at Capella University. Though daily face-to-face contact with fellow learners and professors is indeed limited, the school and the students strive to participate in networking activities and mentoring relationships. I previously attended a brick and mortar master’s level program and can honestly say that I have had more interaction with my professors in this distance education experience and have definitely learned more. Some of that is my own personal growth driving a more disciplined and involved educational experience, but there is clearly a positive role played by the institution.

     At the undergraduate level, the comparison can be glaring. With well over 300 students in brick and mortar school survey courses, the student is invisible. The faculty members are often graduate students that have no interest in teaching and/or researchers with similar levels of enthusiasm and skill.

     Distance educational institutions are in their infancy and we participants are all learning how to optimize the experience, as it offers opportunities to many who might otherwise not be able to participate in the educational “dream”. What we need from the professional communities, both academia and other circles, is productive feedback and collaborative growth.

-Abigail McNeely

Austin, TX

“connection, rigor, and the language of a discipline”
My comments are more in the form of questions on the thoughtful comments of Dr. M. Brown on this subject (see above). The comment was that, “On-line access has benefits, but it also has the potential to exclude the very people who want to be recognized as serious scholars.”

It is very true that the “connection”, the “rigor” and the “language of a discipline” are best learned in a social perhaps face to face setting. But, could we use other features of technology and the Internet to accomplish these goals?

     I have found scholars through the Internet whose collaborations are priceless to my education.

-Simin Hall

Greensboro, NC

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