The flexibility and convenience of online degree programs have attracted minorities in droves, especially Black K-12 educators.
Universities that deliver most or all of their courses online have become the leading producers of Blacks earning graduate degrees in education.
The online trend is most pronounced among Black educators receiving doctorates, according to Diverse’s Top 100 Graduate Degree Producers. In 2006-07, four of the top five producers of Black doctorates in education were universities that offer mostly online or “blended” programs that combine Internet- and campus-based learning.
The overall leader, Nova Southeastern University, produced nearly 20 percent of the 957 Blacks who earned doctorates in education that year. Nova is a nonprofit, but the other three big producers are proprietary institutions — Capella University in Minneapolis and the Argosy University campuses in Sarasota, Fla., and Atlanta. Together, these institutions accounted for another 18.5 percent of education doctorates awarded to Blacks.
The top 10 in education master’s degrees for Blacks was dominated by universities that offer at least some online courses, including three proprietary schools whose coursework is taken entirely over the Internet. They are the University of Phoenix Online, Walden University in Minneapolis and American InterContinental University Online in suburban Chicago.
The pattern extends to bachelor’s in business, computer and health fields, but not in education, largely because public, historically Black colleges and universities produce 40 percent of the prospective teachers. With a 69 percent growth in online Black graduates in all disciplines since 2005-06, the University of Phoenix has moved within two to three dozen degrees of leader Florida A&M University and North Carolina A&T State University, which ranks second in educating Blacks with bachelor’s in any field.
Analysts say the narrowing of the digital divide in recent years has contributed to the growth in this online degree-taking, which further enhances flexibility and convenience — features that traditionally have attracted minority students to proprietary schools.
“The good news is the digital divide is disappearing,” says Harris Miller, president and CEO of the Career College Association, which represents proprietary schools. “It isn’t nearly as large a problem as it was five [or] six years ago. The spread of broadband has made it possible for us to get minority students.”
A national survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in May found that the digital divide had narrowed for Blacks in the last decade. About 75 percent of Whites go online, compared with 59 percent of Blacks, the survey found.
Financial Payoff for K-12 Administrators
Many of the Black recipients of graduate degrees in education are teachers or school administrators looking to advance their careers, and most are women. A master’s degree is often a prerequisite for a position as a principal, for instance, and a doctorate can qualify an educator to be a superintendent or other central office administrator.
Besides sharper skills, teachers and administrators reap financial dividends for earning advanced degrees, under union contracts with many public school systems. Automatic raises dictated by these contracts can be $8,000 to $10,000 a year, which may boost pay 25 percent or more for a teacher who earns a master’s degree.
The online and blended programs are designed to appeal to professional educators on the job. Some education analysts believe that appeal is particularly strong for Blacks and other minorities.
“The online programs are really more conducive to candidates of color who have families to feed and responsibilities,” says Dr. Boyce C. Williams, vice president of institutional relations for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. “A lot of our folks have to work and can’t take off work.” Traditional higher education has been skeptical of online degrees, though some campusbased colleges, including North Carolina A&T, now offer courses over the Internet.
Recipients of terminal degrees are unlikely, though, to wind up as professors at traditional schools of education.
“You won’t find them in the academy,” Williams says. “If they have this terminal degree, they tend to be employed by school systems.”
The skepticism may be shared by some school systems when they consider candidates for promotions who have earned advanced degrees completely online, rather than in blended programs that involve some classroom instruction or clinical practice.
“I think school boards have some concern about a degree that is totally online in a profession that has to deal with people face-toface,” says Richard A. Flanary, director of professional development services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “A total online program — it just seems to me that an individual may be at a disadvantage” in successfully administering a school.
Williams notes the nation suffers from a shortage of school administrators, but says she is uncertain how that might affect the personnel decisions of school systems.
Accrediting agencies have begun to give their seal of approval to distance learning programs in education, Williams says, as long as they “demonstrate they’re not sacrificing anything in terms of knowledge and skills.”
She says NCATE, the oldest accrediting body for teacher education, has approved 140 programs that provide at least half of their coursework via distance learning. One is Western Governors University, a cooperative created by western states.
Argosy University, a proprietary school whose doctorate of education recipients in 2006-07 were mostly Black, is exploring NCATE accreditation, she says. The University of Phoenix did at one time but instead opted for accreditation for undergraduate education programs from the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, a relatively new agency.
‘The Wave of the Future’
Most HBCUs have been slow to join the movement toward online coursework. “It has taken off much less quickly at these schools than we would have thought,” says Dr. John Bourne, director of the Sloan Consortium, which promotes distance learning and is based at Babson College outside Boston.
The exception is North Carolina A&T, whose online degree programs include business education and agricultural education.
“North Carolina A&T is the leader on this,” Bourne says. “A&T has an enormous online program.”
Just this semester, a new Black-led university joined the competition with other proprietary schools offering online degree programs. Duplichain University in New Orleans has enrolled 14 candidates for doctorates and six for master’s in education or criminal justice.
Dr. Press L. Robinson, Duplichain’s president and a former chancellor of Southern University New Orleans, says he has overcome his own skepticism to lead an online school that aims to expand the numbers of Blacks with advanced degrees.
“I can tell you a few years ago, a degree from an online university is something I wouldn’t have encouraged someone to do,” Robinson says. “But that’s the wave of the future. People are busy. They don’t have a lot of time to spend on site in classes.”
Keisha Elliott, 38, an elementary school teacher in Rockdale County, east of Atlanta, is taking a blended program for a doctorate in education from Argosy University in Sarasota. Her initial goal was to seek an administrative job, but now she is aiming for a position writing and developing curriculum. She estimates 70 percent of her coursework is done online.
“This is the only online I’ve ever done,” says Elliott, a University of Georgia graduate who earned a master’s in education from Clark-Atlanta University. “It’s more convenient because school doesn’t end when the kids get on the school bus.”
Elliott judged Argosy’s blended program to be “more rigorous” than several others she investigated, but plans to complete her degree at the University of Georgia for cost-related reasons, including gas expenses to drive to Florida once a semester for classroom sessions.
Since the late 1990s, the American Federation of Teachers has detected increasing interest among its members in online degree programs. But Heidi Glidden, assistant director of the union’s Educational Issues Department, says some members “prefer the routine and familiarity” of regular class sessions on a campus.
“We are finding that ‘blended’ courses seem to be the most successful type of online course delivery,” Glidden says. “Students seem to have a better experience and are more likely to stay enrolled in the course/program.”
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