Off the Beaten Path

Marie Bembrey decided several years ago that she wanted to pursue
her dream of becoming a lawyer. But Bembrey, a paralegal at a
Nashville, Tenn., law firm, couldn’t see adding classes to an already
packed schedule. The 53-year-old grandmother needed the salary from her
job to pay the bills, and she helped care for her young grandchildren
in the evenings.

Because none of the universities in the Nashville area offered
programs to suit her schedule, she ended up taking online classes
through the University of Phoenix.

Going online worked for me because I had so many obstacles in my
life to work around, says Bembrey, who is working on her bachelor’s
degree in criminal justice.

That, she says, and the fact that the typical classroom setting doesn’t suit her well.

Because I’m so set in my ways, I can’t sit in a classroom. It won’t
work for me, she says. (With the University of Phoenix) I can get up
and go to school at 2 a.m. in the morning. It’s convenient. Im also
not a good test-taker. Online, you dont have to take tests, unless
they’re open book.

The number of nontraditional college students defined as students
not attending college right after high school or who must work while
attending has seen steady growth since the 1980s as more people
already working or raising a family decide to get a degree. A report by
the National Center for Education Statistics in 2002 said 73 percent of
all undergraduates were nontraditional students.

Some 81 percent of Black and American Indian students have at least
one characteristic of a nontraditional student; 76 percent of Hispanic,
67 percent Asian and 66 percent of Whites do as well, according to the
American Council on Education.

And for the 2008-2009 school year, a for-profit institution that
seemingly caters to this population the University of Phoenix enrolled more new students than any other program in the country.

That could spell trouble for traditional programs slow to adapt to
nontraditional needs. With the graduating class of 2008, the University
of Phoenix’s online campus overtook Florida A&M and Howard
universities as the top producer of bachelor’s degrees awarded to
African-Americans.

According to U.S. Census figures, in 2005, there were 17.5 million
college students. About 37 percent of them were 25 years old or older.
Projections by NCES show more growth for the nontraditional crowd than
for those entering college following high school graduation over the
next few years.

To quote the Lumina Foundation, the nontraditional student is
nontraditional no more, says James Selbe, assistant vice president for
lifelong learning at ACE .

State policymakers have started to address the need to adapt the
educational system to meet the needs of nontraditional students, Selbe
says. For example, Ohio’s stackable certificate program allows
nontraditional students to earn and accumulate certificates, or
essentially college credit, through adult career centers, specialized
training programs, and employment experience that will eventually apply
toward a college degree.

For now nontraditional institutions such as Strayer University and
the University of Phoenix have the advantage, offering flexibility for
those who can’t find the time to physically sit their way to a degree
during daytime hours.

Some people can’t make it to school every Tuesday, says James
McCoy, a regional vice president for Strayer. So they take the class
online.

McCoy says outside factors jobs, families, church obligations are why lots of people looking to earn a degree come to his school.
Strayer’s program offers night, weekend and online courses so that
people can schedule school around their everyday life. The school has
associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

Targeted Services

To stay in the fight, traditional schools have tested out curricula
in several popular areas, offering heavy night class loads to
accommodate students scheduling conflicts. University of Oregon
Coordinator of Nontraditional Student Programs Gretchen Jewett says the
school has staff devoted to ensuring the success of its nontraditional
students. Several programs exist at the university to help
nontraditional students who don’t spend much time on campus to adapt to
the community.

There are also activities on campus raising awareness of the
contributions of nontraditional students on the campus, she says.

They put on a whole week of activities in November for just
recognizing that not all the students on our campus are 18 to 22, she
says.

For parents, there are three childcare centers on campus so that
children can be cared for while a parent attends a class. The
university offers family housing. Reimbursement for childcare is also
available.

But the school does not offer a major where a student could finish with a degree without taking a few classes during the day.

I’m not sure we’re there yet, she says, when asked if University
of Oregon students can earn a degree entirely online. Some classes are
offered online and at different times during the day. We hope that with
those options, students can find something that works for them. It’s
probably one of the things that pushes nontraditional students into
certain majors that are more flexible with their outside lives.

Dr. Seth Sykes, an assistant dean at university college at Virginia
Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., says students can navigate
their way through many of the school’s popular degree programs by
taking a majority of the classes at night. Smaller programs are not
likely to offer night courses, he says, because of the number of
students who would be taking them. Online courses have become
available, too, he says, but only a handful at a time and when they are
highly sought after by students.

There’s a steady increase in the number (of online classes), he
says. But for the most part, we’re a very traditional campus
with very few online classes. While the school recognizes its nontraditional student population is rising, Sykes says programs are
not being refocused with them in mind.

We have programs for the general student population that may be
more beneficial to the nontraditional students, but we’re not
necessarily targeting programs to this population, he says of the
university, which had 32,000 students enrolled in fall 2008.

Many traditional schools across the country also offer scholarships
specifically for nontraditional students working toward a degree.
Jewett at the University of Oregon says the school gives out 25
scholarships annually from a $1 million endowment from the Bernard
Osher Foundation’s Osher Reentry Scholarship Program.

Falling Short

The 2008 Sloan Survey of Online Learning found that nearly 4 million
students were enrolled in online courses in the fall of 2007. More than
80 percent of them were taking undergraduate courses, and 14 percent,
like Earnest Loveless, were taking graduate courses.

Loveless started the road to his MBA at a traditional university in
Charlotte, N.C. But after getting a new job that made attending classes
at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte impossible, he started
looking into other programs that would.

He soon enrolled at Strayer University, where he graduated last
spring. I couldn’t go to class during the day when they offered some
of those that I needed, says Loveless, 31, of leaving UNC-Charlotte to
finish his degree at Strayer.

It would have taken a lot longer for me to finish. Loveless says
while many people downplay the education that can be attained at a
for-profit institution, he found classes at Strayer more beneficial
than his time at UNC-Charlotte.

I learned more through the heavy online curriculum, he says. It
offers a lot of real world experience. And they’re taught a little
differently where you digest more from the lectures.

But, as with all things, students say there are areas where online
courses fall short. If you have an issue that you really don’t
understand, you have nobody to go to, Bembrey says. You could go to
the instructor if you were on a campus, and they could help explain it
to you. In the online setting, they have tutors, but you have to go to
them when it’s convenient for them. And that’s usually between 9 a.m.
and 5 p.m. That doesn’t help me at all.

They have campuses everywhere, but you can’t get there because you work.

Problem or no, Bembrey pushed through classes filled with group
assignments and unreachable teachers. She expects to graduate this
summer. (Diverse Issues In Higher Education)

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