by Lauren Gosnell
Finding new, innovative ways to further online education allows colleges and universities to reach out to students who may have thought obtaining a college degree impossible. Large demographic groups in this country are underrepresented at universities, not because they don’t have the ability, but because other life factors prevent them from being able to attend college the way a traditional student might. Online programs have the ability to become more specialized and appeal to those groups who are currently not obtaining degrees. Making groups such as high school students, women and minorities, single mothers, prisoners, and Spanish speakers more aware of online education programs could open new possibilities for both these potential students and the universities.
A growing problem in many areas such as East Valley School District in Washington is the increased rate of students dropping out of high school. If more students are not graduating high school, colleges and universities can hardly expect their graduation rates to increase. Many of these students do not drop out because they can’t handle the curriculum, but for a variety of other reasons such as needing to work, being bullied, or just feeling that sitting in a classroom all day isn’t for them. East Valley School District has answered this problem by making online classes available to high school students so that they may obtain their degrees from home on their own time. This program is free for students and they are even provided with laptops so that the financial challenges of online learning will not be a hindrance. Since being implemented, this program has helped hundreds of students to graduate who otherwise would have dropped out.
Introducing students to online learning early on makes sense in a growing technological world. Online education is becoming more popular, and familiarizing high school students with it on some level could better prepare them for college and make them more comfortable with this mode of learning. Some colleges such as Brown University, University of Pennsylvania, Oregon State University, and California State University-Dominguez Hills offer online classes for credit to high school students to introduce them to online learning, give them a head start on obtaining their degrees, and better prepare them for the rigors of college. All of these advantages available through online learning make these students more likely to graduate from college.
A website called MentorNet, discussed by Laura Newberry, seeks to help women and minorities looking to enter career fields in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; fields disproportionately low for these groups. While this website is geared towards these groups, it is available to all students. Universities previously were required to pay $5,000 per year for students to utilize this site, but it is now being offered free to anyone with a university email address. These interactions take place completely online and help students with networking, dealing with work place discrimination they might face, and any topics not covered by college curriculum for their chosen field. While many of the coaches are white males, they are given training to be sympathetic to the plights of women and minorities. Over 100 schools currently participate in this program and 95% of students graduate. Online learning should not only be restricted to the academic experience, but it can also be used to help students prepare for life after earning their degree.
In Child-Friendly College Programs for Parents, Katy Hopkins discusses ways for people, mostly single mothers, to attend college. One excellent program is provided by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. This blended degree program serves as a compromise for students who crave the college experience, but who can’t spend too much time away from their kids and jobs. This allows single mothers to complete their degrees entirely online if they wish or partially online and in the classroom if their schedules allow. “You can do it while the kids are asleep, while you’re at the playground with the kids—at any point in time,” says Ingrid Bracey, the program’s interim director. “It’s at your convenience.” This online program is available to anyone, but by marketing it especially to single mothers, they are reaching a group who may have never considered online learning as an answer to their demanding schedule and opens new doors to these women and their children.
The number of people incarcerated in this country continues to rise. A 2003 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on Education and Correctional Populations shows that 68% of inmates have not completed high school, but that 26% had completed their GED while incarcerated. This shows a population who could be motivated to better themselves through furthering their education. Utah State University recognized that around 97% of inmates will be released at some point in their lives and will be unprepared for the world facing them. This university was one of the few to offer an online education program to inmates. These programs are rare in general, but because so many prisons restrict prisoners’ computer access, it does take effort on the university’s part to implement a program. Utah State University unfortunately had to cut this program in 2007 due to budgetary constraints, but hopefully more universities will attempt to reach out to this population in the future. The Education and Correctional Populations report also found that prisoners who earn a college degree are less likely to return to prison and are more likely to find and keep a job. By offering online learning to prisoners we could curb the prison recidivism rate and decrease the number of ex-convicts who stay dependent on the state after their release.
The International Hispanic Online University offers a full range of online courses, using Spanish as the primary language of instruction. As more and more students begin taking online classes it is becoming more important for institutions to set their specific programs apart, and this one effectively does so by reaching out to the increasing Spanish-speaking population as well as those who hope to use Spanish in their career field. According to reports by the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanic students are shown to be more likely than other ethnicities to attend two-year colleges and find it increasingly difficult to graduate. Offering online classes in Spanish could be appealing to these students and hopefully increase the number of Hispanic students who seek and obtain college degrees. This program is designed to make Spanish-speaking students more comfortable with learning. By offering online classes, it should help them complete courses faster, thereby increasing their chances of graduating at rates closer or equal to those of their white counterparts.
As online education becomes more standard, it is up to colleges and universities to use the technology and mode of instruction in better, more innovative ways to reach out to people who may have otherwise never been able to achieve a post-secondary degree. By finding and appealing to groups such as women, minorities, including Hispanics, single mothers, and prisoners, who are less likely than the general population to obtain degrees; the U.S. could boast a more educated population in the coming years. By offering online education to high school students to help them graduate or begin earning college credits, universities can also better prepare its future students for the online technology now available to them. And by maintaining the standard of online education and making it appeal to specific groups, while still being available to the general population, online education could become more effective as a tool of engagement in higher education. The technology is here, and now is the time to explore methods of engagement so that larger groups of people will be motivated and inspired to succeed in obtaining their college degrees.