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Peter Schenk believed a college degree was the key to a more financially stable life. To that end, the 22-year-old worked two jobs to support his family and pay college tuition for himself and his wife.

As he attempted to balance work and classes, Schenk was faced with a dilemma. He did not have enough time after work to attend more than one or two traditional classes a semester. At that rate, it would have taken years for Schenk to complete his degree. So someone suggested online education as a solution for him and recommended that he look at Western Governors University. He liked what he discovered.

“The WGU program allowed me to work at my own pace, on my own time,” Schenk says. “It required strong selfmotivation, but they had a very supportive program. All students are assigned a mentor who stays with them through graduation, providing weekly phone consultations and being available at other times when issues arise.”

The program’s flexibility allowed Schenk to graduate in two years with a bachelor’s degree in marketing management. Within three months of graduation, the Department of Veteran Affairs hired him for a position that paid twice the combined income he earned from both of his previous jobs. The job came at the ideal time as the Schenks had their first child a few months later.

“Without WGU’s program, it would have taken me at least five years to graduate from a traditional school, and that would have been a major hardship on my family,” Schenk says.

Can online programs improve completion rates for other low-income students and help them improve their economic status? WGU hopes to answer this question with the help of a $1.2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study the potential of its online program.

“The study’s goal is to demonstrate that the WGU competency-based online education system, with personal mentors for each student, can significantly improve completion rates,” says Dr. Robert Mendenhall, WGU president. “We feel it does, so now we aim to show the hard facts to support it, and through the study results encourage other online schools to adopt some of our protocols. [WGU’s] whole focus from the beginning has been to extend to underserved populations and help them succeed.” WGU is the only accredited online university in the country that awards degrees based on the competency system.

To receive a degree under this system, students must demonstrate skill in their subject matter as opposed to accumulating credits. Students undergo a series of examinations to measure their expertise in their subject matter, such as field work evaluations, performance tests and projects.

The Gates Foundation grant, in addition to supporting statistical research, will also sponsor several initiatives designed specifically for the WGU low-income student, according to Dr. Stacey Ludwig Johnson, associate provost of academic services. “Life coaching” will be implemented, which will support students beyond their academic need. There will also be incentive stipends awarded to students for outstanding performance. Some 70 percent of WGU students qualify for financial aid.

The WGU study, which will extend through September 2010, is part of the Gates Foundation’s year-old Post Secondary Success Initiative. Josh Jarrett, senior program officer of that program, says the WGU grant is one of several studies that focus on ways to improve college-completion rates among lowincome students.

“From our standpoint, there is no better investment in this country than an investment in education,” Jarrett says. “A college degree can lead to greater economic stability and increased value in the labor market for an individual.”

Jarrett adds that the Gates Foundation has made a recent grant to Carnegie Mellon University that focuses on blended learning, the integration of distance learning with classroom education.

“Our hypothesis, not supported by a robust body of evidence because it doesn’t exist, is that blended hybrid learning is going to be, in the long term, the most effective learning modality for young people from low-income backgrounds,” Jarrett says.

Last year, the Gates Foundation commissioned the Leo Burnett Company, an advertising agency in Chicago, to conduct a study on adults aged 18-26 who were college students, nonstudents, or had started but discontinued a college education to determine what motivated them to continue, discontinue, or not pursue their higher education. The study revealed some key information related to low-income young adults and college education.

“We found out there are a huge number of particularly low-income young adults who would like to pursue college degrees but are not because they are concerned about how they would balance work, family and school together. They see online education learning as the answer,” says Marie Groark, a Gates Foundation senior program officer. “We hope it is the answer but we don’t know yet.”

The flexibility of online education programs appears to be a major factor in allowing low-income students to complete their degrees.

“The nice thing about online education is it can be done anywhere and at any time,” says Thomas J. Dalton, assistant vice president of enrollment management at online-only Excelsior College. “Many of our students are on the system at 2 or 3 a.m. … doing their course work.”

Excelsior’s primary student demographic is the 38- to 40-year-old age group. “Many of them,” Dalton says, “see online education as a way of bettering themselves or are trying to re-enter the work force at a higher level.” Excelsior’s Center for Career Development Executive Director Susan M. Kryczka, who has worked in distance learning for 30 years, adds, “I think online education works for the low-income student because in that environment, at least here at Excelsior, the student is able to have a close relationship with professors, which keeps him/ her more interested, not to mention its flexibility factor.”

Flexibility is a common thread in talks with education professionals about the influence of online programs on college completion rates among low-income students.

“I think an online program like Excelsior that has a liberal acceptance of transfer credits can be ideal for a low-income person,” says Maribeth Gunner, a senior academic adviser at Excelsior. “It’s cost effective, with no transportation expenses or child care costs, for example, and allows so much more flexibility because the classroom is wherever you are.”

College completion is a topic that has drawn the attention of President Barack Obama. His administration’s American Graduation Initiative has the primary goal of increasing community college graduates by 5 million by 2020 based on the premise that more educated Americans will strengthen the American work force.

Perhaps recognizing the flexibility and time savings of an online education, the administration will create an online skills laboratory that will include courses and interactive software to help students in their coursework. Adding to this, a competency system of awarding credits is being examined (comparable to what WGU offers) whereby low-income students can earn credits by means other than attending traditional classes.

Marshall Smith, senior adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, says the department could not promote online learning as a solution for improving completion rates among low-income students without more evidence. “I don’t know of any good evidence one way or the other, so my department would say it’s something that needs to be studied.” Perhaps the results of the Gates Foundation-funded studies will provide such evidence. Representatives from WGU and Excelsior say they receive many thankyou letters each year from alumni and students, citing how online education allowed them to obtain degrees that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

With its flexible hours, online education might be the ideal forum for the low-income student. For the Gates Foundation though, the focus is broader and looks at a higher education as a whole, in all its formats.

“We are trying to understand what really good learning looks like that engages students, helps retain them, achieves their learning objectives and moves forward to be successful as they progress toward completion,” Jarrett says.

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