Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Study Investigates If Online Education Is Key to Helping More Low-Income Students Obtain Degrees

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Study Investigates If Online Education Is Key to Helping More Low-Income Students Obtain Degrees

Article excerpt

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.

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"The WGU program allowed me to work at my own pace, on my own time," Schenk says. "It required strong self-motivation, 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.

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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 low-income 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. …

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