YPSILANTI, MI – MaggiAnn Monroe is the kind of “non-traditional” student that colleges and universities are trying to attract to their online degree programs.
Monroe, 36, graduated as a licensed practical nurse eight years ago before earning an associate degree in nursing from Kellogg Community College in 2015.
Today, she works as a registered nurse at Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson. After completing her first shift work and driving home, she makes dinner for her children before putting them to bed.
When the day is “done,” she gets back to work earning her bachelor of science in nursing degree from Eastern Michigan University. She does her work online.
“I set aside time when I get home from work, but primarily, I’ll work on it during the weekends, because I have all day to work on it,” said Monroe, whose job at Henry Ford requires she earn a BSN degree within five years of being on the job.
Students like Monroe have become a major focus in the marketing efforts of colleges, universities and community colleges, as the number of in-state high school graduates pursuing a college education continues to drop.
An estimated 61 percent of public-school students in Michigan’s Class of 2017 enrolled in a post-secondary school within six months of graduating high school, according to data collected by the state – the lowest percentage since the state began to closely track the data in 2010.
At EMU, the number of students pursuing degrees online has increased during a time when the university has seen a substantial drop in overall credit hours. Since 2013, EMU has seen its student credit hours fall 16.3 percent.
The increase in online credit hours, however, is a bright spot in the university’s budget. Online credit hours have risen 20 percent from 59,000 in 2014, when EMU began to pivot toward offering entire degree programs entirely online, to 74,000 in 2018.
“What we’ve tried to do over the last three or four years is make that pivot and put up full degree programs that can be completed totally online in order to attract some students that never would have considered Eastern Michigan in the first place,” EMU Vice President for Enrollment Management Kevin Kucera said.
A new clientele
Kucera said the rise of online-only degree programs is a response to making higher education – like almost every other industry – more convenient for its potential customers, or students.
The targeted demographic might be adults who started a degree years ago, but never completed it. Like Monroe, they might be required to continue their education by their employer.
With demands like a full-time job and children, traveling to campus and taking a three-hour class in the evening simply isn’t an attractive option anymore for students like Monroe, when they can complete their degree at their leisure in the comfort of their own home, Kucera said.
“The days of the 1990s and early 2000s when you were working your 9 to 5 job and then you would go to a college campus or a regional satellite office and do a class on a Wednesday night or a Saturday morning on campus, those are not popular, as they once were,” Kucera said. “They’ve been replaced by that working adult whose schedule is so busy that they want to have that flexibility of doing a full degree program online.”
EMU touts its Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, one of 15 online degree programs it offers, as the shining example of what non-traditional students are seeking in an online program – convenient, affordable and user-friendly.
Before the program launched online, the program attracted around 50 students per year, EMU Spokesman Geoff Larcom said. After it went online, the university enrolled 228 students during the 2016-17 academic year.
The following year, after EMU signed on with Academic Partnerships, which specialized in marketing online-only degree programs, that number increased to 586 students for 2017-18. Academic Partnerships, which receives 50 percent of tuition and fees from the online degree programs it markets, has been met with resistance by some EMU faculty.
Members of the EMU-AAUP argue the online-only programs could result in lower quality instruction overall. Union members have filed grievances against the university, accusing EMU administrators of violating their labor contract by entering into a contract with Academic Partnerships without prior consultation with the faculty, but an independent arbitrator ruled in favor of the university.
Students in the RN to BSN program take part in a 10-course curriculum on a path to earning 30 credits, with each class taking seven-and-a-half weeks to complete. The entire program costs $9,840, or $328 per credit hour – considerably less than the ground-based version of that program would be approximately $516 per credit hour.
Monroe said she was drawn to EMU’s program over other online-only degrees because it was more cost-effective, and its closer proximity would allow her to eventually participate in commencement after she earns her degree next month.
The courses consist of watching videos, looking over power points and engaging in discussion via email and in online forums. One of the advantages of the online format, she said, is students can take as many courses as they want at one time, so they can learn at their own pace.
“I actually went into it kind of skeptical,” Monroe said. “But it forces you to be a little more proactive and you have more autonomy in your learning. It’s rewarding to investigate into things to the best of your knowledge. I’ve definitely learned a lot, and I think it’s just as effective as in-classroom training.”
An evolving approach
Peter Baccile recalls how dramatically different Washtenaw Community College’s approach to online courses was when it began offering what was referred to as a “course in the box” back in 2004.
Lectures were taped, put onto a DVD and mailed to students along with textbooks for the courses. About 10 years later, WCC began to ramp up its efforts in making entire degree programs available online, as well as building courses that fit within the Michigan Transfer Agreement, which facilitates the transfer of general education requirements from one institution to another.
WCC’s online credit hours have increased 68.6 percent between the 2013-14 academic years and 2016-17, from 30,832 to 52,012. Online credit hours are up once again in 2017-18 to 58,514, without yet accounting for the spring and summer terms.
That has helped WCC counteract gradual decreases in overall credit hours, despite seeing modest increases in enrollment.
“The college worked holistically with the faculty and administration, the deans the IT department, marketing – across the board – just taking a different approach between offering courses to offering programs,” said Baccile, WCC’s executive director of online learning. “We strategically started looking at what programs we could start offering online. We would look market-wise at where we would have the best fit. Since then, we’ve been focused on certificate and degree completion, as far as which courses we’re building as well as which ones would meet the need for our Michigan transfer agreements, which is where we get a lot of our liberal arts enrollment, too.”
WCC offers 18 online degree programs ranging from business to information technology and hundreds of online courses. Tuition rates start at $108 per credit hour for students in-district up to $119 for out-of-state students. For on-campus courses, credit hours are just $95 for students in-district, but are $161 out-of-district and $220 for out-of-state students.
Baccile said WCC has worked to make sure its students’ online learning experience goes as smoothly as possible with a 24/7 “help desk” if they are experiencing technological issues. It also offers a “blended” course option that combines video lectures and online assignment submissions with a once-a-week meeting with an instructor and classmates.
Overall, WCC has seen its online credit hours increase by 78 percent since 2013-14, with blended classes taken into account, prior to the spring and summer semesters of 2018.
Baccile said the blended option is another form of innovation allowing students to experience the “best of both worlds” in classes ranging from business management and communication to dental assisting and psychology.
“By going with the blended model, (students) can still have autonomy to do the majority of the work if (you’re) working full-time and can only afford to take a few hours off a week,” he said. “Then you can get on campus for that set of hands-on activities you need to be able to see an instructor and talk to them about.”