Low-Income Workers Getting a High-Tech Hand from U. of Maryland

Low-Income Workers Getting a High-Tech Hand from U. of Maryland

As a youngster growing up in Baltimore, Ingrid Hitchens imagined she would attend college one day. But after having a baby while in her teens, Hitchens let go of that plan and focused on taking care of her child. “I thought about going to college, but that changed,” she says.
But now, at age 32, Hitchens has embarked on a college program that may result in her obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Hitchens, who lives in Baltimore with her five children and the five children of a late sister, is beginning a pilot program with the University of Maryland-University College that allows her to take free online courses for academic credit.
“I like that it’s online because that gives me the freedom to do the work when I can,” Hitchens says. “I believe this will help me teach my children that staying home and waiting for a welfare check is not the thing to do.”
University officials are betting the convenience that makes online distance education attractive to working adults with families will also entice low-income wage earners and former welfare recipients to pursue higher education.
The difficulty, however, for many low-income families is that computer equipment, Internet access, tuition and books are too expensive.
In coordination with Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake Inc., which is the Baltimore, Md.-based chapter of Goodwill, the university inaugurated its Better Opportunities through Online Education program late last month in Maryland. Touting the pilot program as the first of its kind in the nation, university officials say the program’s chief goal is to assist people who have gone from welfare or unemployment into the job market but are working in low-paying positions with little opportunity for future advancement.
Program officials report that eight Baltimore-area women, including Hitchens, began taking classes on personal computers in late May. All materials, including tuition, books, and Internet access, were free. In addition, USA Today donated personal computers for the  students to use at home.
The college is the state’s leading public provider of online and adult education. This program marks an effort to target low-income individuals who have successfully completed Goodwill’s job-readiness program in Baltimore and Maryland’s eastern shore region and are holding a steady job.
The program, which organizers hope will become a national model, seeks to move students from jobs to careers by offering certificate education in accounting, management, workplace communications and computer applications.
“The digital divide is talked about a lot in this country as if it’s some sort of Grand Canyon. It’s not. It’s really kind of a crack in the sidewalk that we can easily step over,” says Dr. Gerald A. Heeger, the university’s
president.
Students earning academic credits in the certificate programs can apply those credits toward obtaining four-year degrees. A second group of students, expected to be around 15 in number, will start the program this summer.
Program officials say students who are accepted into the program are eligible to receive free tuition, books and Internet access for up to three years. Although the students have three years to finish the coursework, a certificate program can be completed in two years. The requirements for a certificate are five courses of three credit hours each.
Philip C. Holmes, vice president of Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, says the pilot program will likely reach a predominantly African American audience because 75 percent of the chapter’s job training clients are Black.
Holmes says the chapter works with 4,000 people in its job-training programs. He adds that the Better Opportunities through Online Education partnership plans to bring 100 students into the program.
Even with Goodwill training centers being located in high unemployment areas, Holmes says there’s plenty of people capable of doing college-level work. “Of the 4,000 people we serve, 30 percent are college material,” Holmes says.
In addition to the computer donation by USA Today, the program has raised nearly $100,000 from the Bell Atlantic Foundation, the France-Merrick Foundation, the Citigroup Foundation, and from dozens of university employees who have pledged part of their salaries over the next few years.            



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