Higher ed gets flexible

Call it Flex Ed or the post-college curriculum.  Whatever the nomenclature, the idea of enrolling as a freshman in college out of high school and leaving four years later with a degree is becoming as quaint as listening to Radiohead on vinyl.

Millions of students embark on the traditional four-year degree program every year, finishing up college while barely in their 20s. 

But thanks to a lagging economy and ever-shifting job market some young adults who never finished college or who are looking for a more flexible approach to graduate education have prompted changes in the way local universities offer part-time learning.

“In this economy people are worried about their education but they also have to work at the same time, by having some courses online, some at night and some on the weekend, we are attracting more students,” said Heidi Roller, Vice President of Enrollment for the College of Notre Dame, a local women’s college that offers part-time degree programs along with a full-time program for undergraduate women.

To meet this growing demand for flexibility, Notre Dame recently moved all of its part-time programs under the auspices of the College of Adult Undergraduate Studies.  For the institution known best for its full-time undergraduate women’s school, helping students find their way toward a degree path at a different pace is simply part of a new reality for schools that wish to grow.

“There is a fair amount of interest in these programs because students are adapting and we are too,” said Roller.

Continuing education or part-time learning has always been part of the local college offerings in Baltimore. Traditionally, the curriculum focused on augmented professional training or specialized post-graduate  learning aimed at improving career prospects.

But as career paths fragment and employers roll back reimbursements for continuing education, the part-time student’s needs reflect a far different reality.

“The main thing we do really, really well is we are flexible and have lots of options for students,” said Roller.

Towson University has also increased its part time offerings, folding its part-time program under the same administrative umbrella as full-time, thus allowing students access to better selection of courses.

“Students never really saw the difference,” said James Dilisio, associate provost.  

Dilisio said the biggest growth for Towson has been in its part-time graduate studies:

“Students are retooling their skills so we’ve seen increased in enrollment.”

Graduating in four years? Not so likely

Driving some of these changes is the growing number of students who fail to obtain undergraduate degrees within four years.

According to a report issued by The Education Trust last year, only 37 percent of students who enter college directly after graduating from high school earn their diploma in four years. Another 26 percent earn degrees six years after high school.

But even seven years later 37 percent still don’t have their degrees, meaning students either can’t afford to finish, or as Roller says, just can’t afford to take all their course work at once.

Thus colleges like Notre Dame offer degree programs in nursing and business that can be earned on the weekend or evenings or in part online. The point is, Roller said, to give students options.

“We completely make it flexible. They can take three classes for a semester, and then just want to take an online course,” Roller said. “It’s up to them.”

And part-time undergraduate students are not the only ones looking for flexible ways to continue to their studies.

A more competitive job market has made earning a graduate degree an often crucial leg up when millions of unemployed workers compete for the same jobs. 

At Loyola University, which offers part-time graduate degree programs in finance, education, and pastoral counseling to name a few, prospective students are seeking a combination of face-to-face learning supplemented by online learning.  Part of the problem is simply time.

“They are looking for what we call hybrid courses,” said Loyola Director Graduate Admissions of Mauree Faux. “Something that has both face-to-face classroom time and online learning, a combination.”

Not all academic offerings are strictly practical though, and for those students willing to finish higher level degrees part-time programs can provide a bridge to more traditional degree paths.

That’s what worked for Columbia resident Randy Wheeler, who started his post-college studies in the Johns Hopkins Master of Liberal Arts program, a continuing studies program that offers a variety of liberal arts oriented courses on a diverse range of topics from The Impressionist Era to Science Fiction Film in the 20th Century.

“It was a great program. I really enjoyed it,” said Wheeler, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Catholic University in D.C. and has since taught the subject at several local colleges.

“It was really helpful in that sense, that I was able to go on from there,” he said.

Still, for educators like Roller, the key to quality education will be how effectively institutions can adapt to the needs of the students.

“We have continue to look at what the students need,” said Roller. SPECIAL TO B 

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