Back in January, I read an article that stirred the pot of the higher ed debate over distance learning. The article referenced a report that presented a generalized view of online institutions and their overall failings, claiming that insufficient faculty-student interaction and poor learning outcomes too often lead to high debt and low graduation rates, most notably in the for-profit sector.
It was certainly not the first critique of online education I’d come across, but as I read this one, it motivated me to want to speak up for The American Women’s College. Because our students, our programs and our outcomes tell a very different story - a story of affordability, strong completion rates and professional gains, punctuated by intensive faculty-student interaction, evidence based learning, social engagement, and leadership development.
We see ourselves as a different type of institution than those referenced in the article, but one thing online programs do seem to have in common is the students we serve; adults who feel limited by their lack of a bachelor’s degree, determined to change their circumstances and beholden to schedules that make online programs the best options for getting their degrees. More often than not, these students are adult women (65% of online students) over the age of 30. Women who invest time, money and a tremendous amount of hope in their education deserve more than questionable degrees, along with lots of debt. The report, in its attempts to shed light on colleges that were taking advantage of students in these circumstances, failed to give any examples of institutions that are working hard to serve these students well.
I started off my year inspired to generate a response, and, alas, here we are in July, and I’m finally just now posting a blog entry about it. And while it’s taken me awhile to do so, I’ve been mentally composing these sentences for months. I’ve been dictating notes into my phone as I shuttle my kids to swim meets, baseball games and band concerts; self-editing as I pack lunches, fix dinners and figure out when I’m going to make a long promised phone call to a dear friend who’s going through some stuff.
And then it occurred to me, I can write a post that responds to that study’s findings and defends The American Women’s College with the key data points, student testimonials and a discussion of the unique learning model we’ve created, but it’s actually all the reasons why I haven’t been able to sit down and write this blog, the work/family/social obligations competing for my time and headspace, that contribute to why our outcomes are better than other online and even many traditional programs.
As an online institution, to our students, it may seem like we operate behind a screen of pixels and passwords. Quite frankly, at the day to day level, our team does work through the blocks of our Google calendars, communicating via email and chat bubbles, but we are real people, and as we’re moving between desks and conference rooms, we’re developing learning activities, writing grant proposals, and attending and presenting at conferences. Many of us are speaking to prospective students, answering questions about financial aid or explaining how and why to fit certain courses into schedules.
Our work minds are dedicated to deciphering data points, analyzing best practices in education and monitoring trends in workforce development in order to create a program that’s relevant, beneficial and enriching. But, as a woman-run office, our collective focus is routinely challenged by the ping of a doctor’s appointment reminder for an aging parent or a children’s birthday party evite.
Our desks are decorated with homemade art projects, and just around 5:00, there’s usually at least one person heading for the door with her laptop, a stack of notes and a slight air of panic, as she rushes to beat the daycare clock.
Using our busy lives as a template when thinking about how to accommodate our students’ has proven to be a huge advantage. We measure our performance by the success of our students, so we’re on to something. Who knows what busy women need to get things done more than busy women who are also working hard to get things done? Who knows how to recognize, connect with and support women better than other women?
Media announcements provide some insight into the grants we’ve won, the accolades we’ve received or the ways we celebrate our students, but they’re not going to tell you about the conversations we have around squeezing more minutes out of the day; about the elusive search for balance, stability and predictability; about how to reconcile ambitions and limitations; about how to support each other when the going gets tough. These conversations don’t just start and end in our offices, they are embedded in our commitment to fostering a community with, among and between our students.
We look to these conversations to inform critical decisions about how to position our students for success. Our own lives make us keenly aware of the need for simplicity, efficiency and ease in all the ways a student interacts with our organization, so we design courses and delivery methods that provide knowledge and content in flexible ways, we give them the support they need to stay engaged amidst all the competing priorities, and we create programs based on practical, in-demand skills that will translate into high paying jobs and high growth careers. By speaking to each other, we’ve arrived at statistics that speak for themselves.