Despite a successful career, Greg Atkins always felt something was holding him back. Two [years ago, at the age of thirty-eight, he climbed to a position of prestige in state government [as assistant commissioner of New Jersey’s department of community affairs.
Yet, despite his experience, he felt he could go no further without an academic degree. However, with a demanding job and small children at home, there was little time to attend classes. “I’ve been raising a family and my job requires that I attend meetings in the evening,” Atkins said. “It is very difficult to get back in the classroom, even for night classes.”
But Atkins found the answer, as did many professionals, at Thomas Edison College in Trenton, N.J.–a non-traditional college without a campus, or even scheduled classes, that offers twelve degree programs.
After receiving credit for courses taken more than two decades ago and for his experience in social work and state government, Atkins can fulfill the balance of the requirements for a bachelor’s degree at home. Late at night, on weekends and any time he can find the time, Atkins studies. A year from now, he plans to have a bachelor’s degree in public administration–just one step, he says, on his way to a master’s degree and a doctorate.
Tens of thousands of people each year turn to similar programs–offered at some of the nation’s top colleges and universities, and at institutions like Thomas Edison–to earn associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and even doctoral degrees at the pace most suitable to their lifestyles.
Accreditation and Access There are 138 such programs accredited by the nation’s six accrediting agencies and recognized by the Washington-based American Council on Education (ACT i), according to Eugene Sullivan, one of the co-authors of External Degrees in the Information Age: Legitimate Choices. The hook, which was also written by ACE colleagues Henry Spille and David Stewart, is a guide to programs accessible to students around the country and the world. It is scheduled to be published this summer by Oryx Press.
Although the number of programs has grown only slightly since 1990, according to Sullivan, the institutions report that more and more adults are seeking opportunities to advance their education at home. The advances in distance learning technology, in particular, have made such programs more flexible and accessible.
The growth has compelled ACE to form partnerships with accredited institutions to develop some standards for the field. Likewise, The Alliance, an association of administrators of the programs, works to improve the programs as they evolve and expand. “ACE has created a number of guidelines on external degree programs [to ensure their quality]. There is a growing sense of professional standards,” said Dr. Gary Miller, director of the distance education programs at Pennsylvania State University.
Penn State started offering off-campus academic programs a century ago through correspondence, and delivery methods have improved somewhat since. In the last twenty-five years, programs have developed that allow students almost anywhere to take classes through the mail, cable television and even the Internet. But it is the students and the diversity of their backgrounds and their needs–and not the available technology–that should carry more influence regarding the design of these programs, according to Miller.
“We try to keep the programs as low-tech as possible so that technology does not become an access issue,” Miller said. Assuming that potential students have computers and access to online resources could leave many out of the programs. Students in Penn State’s associate’s degree program for dietary managers and technicians, for instance, may not have the ability to purchase advanced technology and rarely have the needed equipment at work. But the varying work shifts and long working hours of the students, many of whom are already working in the food service industry, make the external programs a viable alternative to earning the degree they need. “We believe the field ought to retain I the whole range of media to maintain I access,” Miller said.
For minority students, who are often unable to suspend their careers to matriculate, the programs fill a need. For New Jersey’s Atkins, it is the only way to reach his academic and career goals. I encountered a couple of obstacles where the issue of not having a degree precluded me from moving forward,” Atkins said. “Folks won’t admit that to you, but I know in a situation where I’m competing with someone else who has a degree, I don’t have the opportunity to demonstrate my ability.” At Regents College in Albany, N.Y., the average age of its students is thirty-nine, and about 17 percent of the 9,000 students enrolled are from minority groups. The college provides even more flexibility to students by acting as an organizing body, steering students to appropriate courses and programs at hundreds of other accredited institutions and compiling those credits toward a Regents College diploma. It also evaluates each student’s job experience and provides proficiency examinations that meet some course requirements.
“The flexibility and the ability to take courses from a variety of sources. . . are very important for improving access,” said Regents College spokesman William M. Stewart. “We are ideal for the student who would like to take a distance learning opportunity but doesn’t know where to find it.”
Self-Motivated Students National University in San Diego provides flexible on- and off-campus options for students. The 7,800 full-time students (26 percent of them minority students) take intensive month-long courses at night and on weekends to meet requirements in forty-five degree programs. The open entry/open exit option allows students to go at their own pace, according to Dr. Thomas MacCalla, vice president for multicultural affairs. “The older students and minority students have a chance to do something they didn’t earlier on,” MacCalla said. “They are hard working and self-motivated.”
Some of the programs have proven their effectiveness through their graduates. Regents, National, Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Union Institute in Ohio have regularly been cited in Black Issues In Higher Education’s Top 100 degree producers for the accomplishments of their minority students. The ability to work independently is a critical characteristic for students who choose such programs. They must undertake their studies with virtually no supervision, be willing to seek assistance when needed, and be motivated to advance at an appropriate pace, note observers. These are undertakings that help define institutional quality, which hinges partly on the support services they provide to help students fully benefit from the programs offered.
National University, using a $175,000 grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, established Projecto Adelante, a program to increase the number of Hispanic nurses with bachelor’s degrees. “If you take a program off campus, all the things that students on campus rely on must be provided in some way,” said Miller.
Students should make sure that advising services, registration, library resources and examinations are all accessible off campus. Some programs, like Regents College, have agreements with other institutions to allow students to use their resources. “You have to find out if the institution is extending the entire degree program to you or just the classes,” Miller said. Students must also make sure earned credits will transfer to other institutions if the student decides to enroll in a traditional degree program.
The Importance of Credibility Although they may lack the prestige of some of the nation’s traditional universities, many of the external programs have won credibility, according to Sullivan. Those recognized by ACE must meet the same accreditation standards of some of the nation’s top institutions. Although there are many correspondence and distance programs with questionable credentials–which will be the subject of another updated ACE publication, Diploma Mills, later this year–those that gain accreditation are generally well-regarded, he said.
“Programs like Thomas Edison in New Jersey and The Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara have been in business for many years and their reputations are quite good,” said Sullivan. Off-campus programs offered as an extension of traditional univerisities often mirror the curricula and completion requirements of similar courses offered on campus. The faculty are also generally the same. The non-traditional institutions often hire adjunct faculty, taking advantage of experienced professoriates at nearby universities. Credibility was a key concern of Atkins, who checked out Thomas Edison’s reputation before committing himself to the program there.
“The program’s reputation is quite high. A lot of the alumni from the college are in key positions in both private industry and the public sector in New Jersey,” said Atkins. “It is quite rigorous with very high standards. You really have to demonstrate college-level knowledge.”
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