On typical weekdays, college student Kerry Brandt rises before dawn to drive 42 miles from Baltimore to his technology support job in Prince George's County. Monday through Wednesday, he stays in the office an extra four hours to do homework. He usually doesn't get home until almost 11 p.m. and doesn't get to bed until 1 a.m.
On Sunday, he spends the morning in church and the afternoon in the library, writing college papers. And he has two daughters, one 10 years old and the other in college, and is blending that family with his fiancee and her three children.
If the man gets a few free hours to watch football on Sunday night, he counts his lucky stars.
College, in its traditional face-to-face form, might not work for Brandt. His schedule is simply too stuffed to accommodate fixed class times. Yet he desperately wanted to go back to school and complete a degree. A former Marine, he can't abide a mission left unfinished and wanted to be a role model for his daughters.
When he searched for college options a few years ago, someone suggested University of Maryland, University College, the state's heavily online university. Brandt, 46, an affable man who likes to stare you in the eye as he talks, had his reservations about learning through an entirely electronic format. But the flexibility seemed too good to pass up.
After two years of two classes a semester (summers included), Brandt is sold on the wonders of online education for a working man with a family.
"I actually think I work harder and get more out of it," says Brandt, a computer information technology major. "I can't imagine going to College Park for two classes every week. I don't think I could do it and take care of all my other responsibilities."
Recent studies suggest that millions of students every year are taking the same path as Brandt. The stereotype of college still involves teenagers leaving home to party, talk about the meaning of life until 3 a.m. and, occasionally, go to class. But that model is a poor fit for millions of Americans.
Dealing with pressures
Financial, family and scheduling pressures make it hard for many to set work aside to attend face-to-face classes every week. Increasingly, students want to squeeze their pursuit of degrees into rare patches of downtime. For these students, the explosion of online class offerings is a godsend.
"It's one of the greatest opportunities to ever come up for working adults with families," says Brandt's fiancee, Regina Durphy, who takes online nursing classes at UMUC. "It's the reason a lot of people are completing degrees now when they couldn't have done it face-to-face. If Kerry wasn't online, he wouldn't be able to do it."
A recent study by Ambient Insight Research predicted that, over the next five years, the number of U.S. students taking online classes will increase from 12 million to 22 million and that the number of students taking classes exclusively face-to-face will decrease from 15 million to 5 million. At UMUC, enrollment of online U.S. students has increased from 33,401 in 2004 to 47,853 this year.
Brandt was never much of a student at Joppatowne High School in Harford County. Like many young men, he wanted to be a professional football player. He says he was good enough to draw attention from coaches at prestigious universities such as Princeton. But his grades weren't up to snuff.
He didn't do much better during a stint at Harford Community College. "At that point, I was crushed," he said. "But it was a crossroads for me. I had to figure out what I really wanted to do."
Several relatives had served in the Marines, and at age 19, Brandt decided Parris Island, S.C., was the perfect place to find the discipline and pride he had lacked in high school.
He calls boot camp the hardest thing he ever had to do but says he never lacked confidence in his resolve after surviving it. "It's an experience you can always look back on for motivation to do anything you need to do in life," he says.
After seven years of service as a radio operator, Brandt emerged a more confident man with designs on a career working with computers. He caught on as a desktop installation specialist at Aberdeen Proving Ground and has worked steadily in his chosen field ever since.
Brandt assembled 62 credits between stretches at community colleges and a few classes at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But with a solid job, young children and a divorce pulling at his attention, he remained stuck there for years.
His incomplete education nagged at him, however, every time he talked to his sister, an attorney, or listened to his pastor at New Psalmist Baptist Church preach about the importance of getting a college degree.
He did not have to go back. He has served as a network engineer for Prince George's Hospital Center, the county housing authority and the Air Force surgeon general. Promotions and pay raises have never eluded him. But he noticed a growing demand in the field for degrees and certifications, and he didn't want to be left behind.
"I guess my main motivation was a personal one, to be a professional with a degree," he says. "But I did not know where I was going to find the time."
Brandt had reservations about continuing his education online. "I'm pretty much a hands-on person," he says. "I enjoy the interaction with other students."
But he discovered a different kind of community online. His UMUC classes generally include 15 to 20 students. After registering, he introduces himself to each one. Most are in the military or, like him, parents with full-time jobs.
The instructor posts a reading assignment and question at the beginning of each week, and students interact by posting responses to the assignment and then responses to those responses. Participation in the back-and-forth is a significant part of the student's grade. Students can also pose questions to the instructor in the course chat room or through personal e-mails.
Brandt says he gets more out of it than the classroom discussions he remembers from his youth.
"You learn a lot more than what's in the textbook, because people bring their life experiences to their responses, and they really have time to sit and think before posting something," he says. "I think it's more challenging than the traditional classroom setting. You have to use more thought and effort to interact."
He felt he was "slacking" in a face-to-face class at College Park last summer.
Online students write papers, take midterms and finals, and produce group projects, just like traditional students. Grades are updated weekly, so they know where they stand. The main challenge, Brandt says, is to remain motivated without answering to a live professor every week.
"Nobody's watching you, so you have to be pretty disciplined," he says.
Every spare moment
He not only sets aside time after work and on Sunday afternoons; he usually has his textbook cracked or the Web portal for his class open at work, so he can sneak in course work during downtime.
His family understands how much he cares about the degree. If that means a day when he can only talk on the cell phone, so be it. Actually, his fiancee enjoys teasing him about his hectic life.
"He has all these alarms on his phone and they go off all the time so he knows when he has to get to the next thing," she says with a laugh. "But he makes sure I do my assignments, too. I don't know how he maneuvers through a day, much less a week. He's a very focused person."
Brandt, in turn, loves to tease his oldest daughter, Tiffnie, a senior political science and philosophy major at College Park, that he'll outperform her on midterms or earn a higher average for the semester.
"I'm just very proud of him," she says. "He's a very determined person."
Brandt has a 3.7 grade-point average, made the dean's list last semester and recently joined an honor society for information technology students. Brandt expects to earn his bachelor's degree in winter 2011 and to pursue graduate degrees after that. He wants to shift his career to the growing field of cyber-security.
"I feel," he says, "like I'm going to be taking some kind of class forever."