Raising college completion with online, high tech approaches

I delivered the following remarks at Drexel University’s National Distance Learning Week celebration on November 11, 2014. Dr. Susan Aldridge, senior vice president for online learning and president of Drexel University Online, hosted the event for faculty, staff, and students in the university’s online programs.

Thank you President Aldridge and Interim Provost Herbert. And thank you all for sharing your special occasion with me.

As you can imagine from my introduction, I might spew academic research and data on education today. But I promise not to do that. Instead, I want to talk about my personal story relating to online learning.

I have both a personal and a professional connection with online learning.

My personal connection is the master’s degree I earned through Drexel University.

As an undergraduate student, I attended Hiram College, a private liberal arts college with small classes and a lot of personal attention. I thought I needed that type of face-to-face interaction to be successful in college.

After a few years working in higher education, I knew that it would be my life’s work. I knew I would need a master’s degree to remain in the field.

Then I started two other campus-based master’s programs, but I was not successful until I found Drexel University.

Drexel University offered me three things I needed at the graduate level. One, a university with a name I could trust. Two, an academic program that fit my professional aspirations. Three, the convenience earning a degree while working full time.

I think we all can agree that Drexel University is a name you can trust. In fact, when I first told people that I was earning a degree at Drexel, they immediately recognized the high quality of the university. It’s a great university with a global vision and tremendous economic impact here in Philadelphia.

I won’t get into too much detail about the academic fit. Suffice it to say that in my field of higher education, I would find many programs focused on student affairs. I wanted a program, like Drexel’s, focusing on strategic and operational management. This is what I needed to get ahead in my career.

And my third reason—convenience—made it possible for me to earn my degree. Distance learning, online learning, and technology-enhanced learning, in all of its forms, makes a big difference for a lot of adult learners or nontraditional learners who work full time, raise families, or have other demands on their time.

As much as we are here today to celebrate online learning and Drexel University’s incredible tradition of innovation in this space, I would say that if there is a secret sauce, it is a combination of the three elements that I described. Online learning cannot exist by itself without a great university and a rigorous academic curriculum.

These three elements—a name you can trust, an academic program you need, and the convenience you want—make higher education work today.

I mentioned that I also have a professional connection with online learning.

At one point earlier in my career, I was assistant dean of Hiram College’s Weekend College program. It is a program offered at my alma mater and for almost 40 years has provided an avenue for adult learners to complete a bachelor’s degree.

While online learning was not the focus of the Weekend College for the first 30 years, and it only started while I was assistant dean, I still learned a lot from working with nontraditional learners.

This was an eye-opening experience for me. I mentioned earlier that I found myself as one of these adult/nontraditional learners looking for a specific academic fit and convenience.

But I quickly learned that I had it easy. I had it very easy.

I was already working full time in my chosen profession. I wanted to move “up” but not “out.” I wasn’t switching careers.

And let me be more honest. Yes, I was working a demanding job, but I didn’t have other significant demands on my time. No family demands, for example. I was working and going to school.

Then I worked with hundreds of students who worked two jobs, worked jobs they disliked, or perhaps were in periods of having no job at all. I worked with students who had families and kids, some as single parents. I worked with students who had been to college before but felt like failures—even if they weren’t.

I worked with students who had paid thousands of dollars on proprietary schools only to find their course credits wouldn’t transfer to most bachelor’s degree programs. That was not true for every proprietary school, and I am glad to say that we accepted credits with a placement exam.

As much as it was important for me to find that secret sauce to earn a master’s degree, I found that those three elements I described were even more important for the students I served.

They needed a name they could trust. A college that when they said the name to an employer or a coworker or a family member, it would be recognized for high quality. A college that would offer credits that could transfer to another school—although we committed to helping students finish their degrees.

They needed an academic program that prepared them for career advancement. Its not “I just need the piece of paper” or “a diploma I can hang on my wall.” They needed experiences that would prepare them for promotion or for a new career all together.

And they needed the convenience of being able to earn a degree while balancing so many other life priorities. Most of the students I served had many more demands on their time that I did.

My professional experience confirmed my personal experience: that the difference for many college degree seekers is through a combination of a name you can trust, a high-quality academic program, and the convenience of being able to learn anytime, anywhere.

In the future, more students will look a lot like today’s adult, nontraditional, or graduate student. We are already seeing that transformation today.

This is why your work is so important.

Let me end with my perspective as leader in higher education.

I am chief operating officer of the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education. It is an organization working toward significantly increasing educational attainment in 23 counties surrounding Cleveland, Ohio. We are working across all levels of education with the ultimate aim of increasing the number of people with postsecondary credentials.

It has never been more important to focus on distance, online, and technology-enhanced learning. We have an urgent need in the United States to increase educational attainment, especially at the college level.

Many regions are Northeast Ohio with lagging college attainment rates. We have 32% of our adults with a two-year or four-year degree. The problem is that by 2020, about 64% of all jobs in Ohio will require some college education. Nationwide, 35% of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree, and 30% will require some college or an associates degree.

That does not fare well for our region’s economy or its citizens.

It gets harder when you look at the demographics in our part of the country. In the Midwest—similar to the east coast—the population shifts are showing a stagnating number of high school graduates in the pipeline. We’ve hit a plateau.

This means we cannot increase our college completion rates enough by sending more high school students to college.

Don’t get me wrong. That is certainly a crucial part of what we need to do in Ohio and across the country. But in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, it is not enough.

If we are to meet our college attainment needs, then we need to focus on adults, some of whom went to college but stopped out before earning a degree. That means doing more of what you excel doing. It means developing a secret sauce combining a name you can trust, academic programs in need, and convenience including online programs.

We are doing this in Northeast Ohio. And you are doing it here. Through the Talent Dividend Network I met Hadass Sheffer, president of Graduate Philadelphia and the Graduate Network. It is an incredible resource that provides one-on-one advising to adults who are going back to college.

I really admire Hadass for what she has accomplished here, and I will be working with her to do something similar in Ohio.

But we shouldn’t limit ourselves to thinking in terms of online programs.

My organization also focuses on the transformative power of adaptive learning technology. We think that personalized blended learning will change the way the world learns, making a high quality education available to more people than ever before.

I really admire what you have done here at Drexel University. I admire it so much that I have volunteered my time to give back to the university. For several years I have been mentoring and advising students in the Master of Science in Higher Education program.

Earlier this year I was elected to the Alumni Association board of governors. I am a raving fan of this university. I really appreciate being able to give back and participate in programs like this.

And guess what? This is my third time visiting campus! I came to campus as part of the master’s program orientation. And I came back the second time when I was elected to the Alumni Association board.

Tonight I stand here as a reminder that what you do will reach much further than the walls of this room, the buildings of this campus, and the limits of this city.

Your reach is everywhere.

I feel extraordinarily well prepared for my future thanks in part to Drexel University’s online Master of Science in Higher Education program. It prepared me well for further study at the doctoral level.

And the program continues to serve me well for what I learned about strategic planning and higher education. Thank you Drexel!

Congratulations to all of you for the great work you are doing. We need you. Higher education is changing rapidly and no one knows what the future holds. But you are at the forefront. Your work is very important for the future of Drexel and the future of education. You are changing the way the world learns. I hope you are as excited as I am to be part of it.

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