eArmyU Improves Educational Access for Soldiers; but HBCUs May Be Missing out Due to Distance Learning Incapacity. (Special Report: African American in technology)(Cover Story)

Article excerpt

The Army's venture into distance learning -- dubbed eArmyU -- is proving to be a big success with more than 12,000 soldiers enrolled since it began a year ago. Enlisted soldiers, particularly soldiers of color, have been lining up for the program that offers the soldiers a laptop, Internet access and free tuition to 23 participating colleges and universities. The three participating bases offering the program -- Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Hood, Texas -- have waiting lists.

The eArmyU program began in January 2001, and expects to offer online courses to 80,000 soldiers over the next five years. Two additional Army installations in Fort Carson, Colo., and Fort Lewis, Wash., were added in February.

"An educated soldier clearly gives the Army a tremendous return on investment," says Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White. "We are meeting our goals to create technology-savvy soldiers to support Army Transformation, succeed on the digitized battlefield, enhance retention and help soldiers achieve academic degrees while they serve."

Soldiers must have at least three years remaining in the service to qualify. They also need to complete 12 credits within two years or they will be charged a percentage of college costs. General studies, business administration, information systems management and criminal justice are among the most popular majors.

The eArmyU partnership includes a collaboration of 23 colleges and universities and several hardware and software providers, offering soldiers more than 90 online postsecondary degree and certificate programs and 4,000 courses. The distance learning portal is designed, built and operated by PwC Consulting, a business of Pricewaterhouse Coopers.

North Carolina A&T State University is currently the only historically Black college or university participating in the program. Colleges with the largest percentage of eArmyU enrollment are Central Texas College; Troy State University; Thomas Edison State College; Saint Leo University; and Rio Salado Community College, which PwC Consulting considers a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI).

To participate, institutions must:

* Be members of the Service Member Opportunity Colleges Army Degree program, which includes schools who agree to guarantee transfer credit for many courses at the undergraduate level;

* Offer degree programs consistent with the needs of the enlisted soldier population;

* Agree to abide by certain best practices in distance education;

* Be able to support students virtually;

* Have the business infrastructure to participate effectively and agree to contractual requirements; and

* Be accredited by a recognized accrediting agency.

FILLING A DEMAND

Nearly 700 soldiers are enrolled at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Ariz. The school provides three degrees -- two associates' of Applied Science degrees: Applied Science/Computer Tech and General Studies; one associate's of arts: General Studies; and nine certificate programs, including Desktop Publishing, Programming, and Quality Customer Service. The school has a long history of distance education and has been offering Web-based instruction since 1996. Nearly 80 percent of the eArmyU students are pursuing certificates in computer usage, programming or maintenance.

This reflects the demand of the marketplace, says Dr. Karen Mills, senior associate dean of instruction at Rio Salado. The program is set up so that once a student earns a certificate, he or she can go on to earn an associate's degree. The program has short-term successes built into it.

"My understanding is the majority of students (soldiers) weren't considering secondary education until the army provided the opportunity," Mills says. "That's why I think taking small steps is a good idea."

Mills says besides the obvious benefit of increased enrollment, Rio Salado has been pleasantly surprised that many students choose them as a host institution, as opposed to a target institution. …