As a student currently enrolled in online university the decision to leave the brick and mortar system and complete my degree online has been the best decision I have ever made for my education and has proven to be a cornerstone that supports the future I am destined to be a part of.
A Non-Traditional Path
I started my education in one of the largest state schools in the nation. The financial responsibility of my education fell completely to me and as a 19 year old I found myself in giant lecture halls with zero direct teacher interaction. I attended classes irregularly knowing that it was easy to slip through unnoticed and when the decision to leave that state school after two years came I still walked away with a 3.8 GPA. Not because I am smart or worked really hard, but because the system easily allowed slacking, had no accountability, and contained very little challenge.
I tried transferring to a small, private school to increase the academic challenge only to find it was too expensive to handle on my own. I couldn’t even complete the first semester. When the tuition bill showed up with far less financial aid funding then I was used to I was forced to make the decision to leave. Though the education was more on par with my desire to learn and be challenged, the expense was overwhelming and there was no way I could handle the cost. Dropping out of a degree program for the second time was heart-breaking, but my options were limited.
I have carried the dream of having a degree since I was five years old. I wanted to attend the same college my grandparent’s did and continue a legacy of well-rounded, engaged, highly educated interaction with the world around me, but the brick and mortar system failed me. At first, it failed as a lack of education at all and then it failed as it presented too high of a price tag.
Opportunity Off Of the Campus (and Out of the Country)
The fact is, the world is offering more opportunity than ever before and true learning can come from far more places than established campuses and hundred year old learning regimens. I took the idea that what I really wanted was to learn, not just have a degree, and I found opportunity in teaching English overseas, taking internships in other countries, and finding men and women that would take me under their wing and push me to do my best, encourage me in my strengths and help me develop a sense of who I was and what I brought to the world that in turn has led me to start my own businesses, love the process of learning new things and continue to invest in developing a nuanced worldview based on experience and my own study.
I traveled to four continents, lived in Europe and Africa, made friends in interesting and surprising places and learned more than most schools could have taught me. My CV is impressive and my 20s proved fruitful.
Job Markets and Educational Requirements
However, in a world where the majority of organizations have hiring requirements that include a degree, I was still not a valid candidate for the jobs I was looking for. My experience meant little and I would be immediately discounted for not being able to provide a piece of paper that showed my educational background. This hindrance made my desire to go back to school a reluctant priority.
After writing and being published in several languages, I would be required by universities to enter writing 101 classes and pay per credit hour for them.
After studying with world-changing innovators and helping to communicate the cause of non-profits I would be given the same list of general education requirements as an 18 year-old who just graduated high school and had no independent life experience.
The requirement to have a degree meant going back into a system that had failed me before and having to put my life on hold. It meant cutting off the opportunities I had to travel because of classes scheduled for every Tuesday and Thursday. It meant slowing down the momentum I had as a communicator and business owner because of the expensive bill and the four block radius of a campus.
At 28, after being out of university for six years, I went back into large lecture halls where the 19 year old students I worked with in groups would say things like, “I thought you looked older,” and I would sit next to the few adults auditing courses for their own enjoyment or returning military whose delay in education was because they were serving in war zones.
When I first went back I was enrolled as a journalism major at a university that wouldn’t even consider the fact that I had been running my own international media company for four years an opportunity for fulfilling the required internship credit.
The brick and mortar system is a broken system for non-traditional students like me and I am not the only one.
The Ignored Majority
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2013) 38% of the 17.6 million undergraduates are over the age of 25
and 25% are over the age of 30. That is a huge percentage of students that are coming into schools with life experience, with on-the-ground education, and with factors that are not readily supported by traditional school structures – like families, jobs, and personal projects that are valuable and important to individual development and growth. None of these things are considered when enrolling non-traditional students, which creates significant barriers and limited value for the only system that can issue us the degrees that are required to get the jobs that are desirable.
At least one of these factors has been addressed by the online education environment and that is the limited schedule and required flexible access that non-traditional students need to complete their education.
My online university is asynchronous. I log in to read required materials, participate in forum-like discussions and take quizzes or submit homework assignments when it fits into my weekly schedule. The requirements and deadlines are clearly posted and teachers are both strict and understanding about their student’s abilities to meet those deadlines.
The majority of the papers I am required to write are open to my own choice of topic and angle, allowing me to apply previous knowledge and develop arguments based on my life and the direction I see my career taking while integrating my experience with newly learned techniques and principles from the course.
The students I study with are from all over the world and with a wide variety of their own experiences, which add to interesting discussions, incredible insight, and shared struggle with schedules and relationships happening beyond university. While the community is online, it is more accepting and interactive then some of the experiences I had as an older student at a traditional college.
My school is technically larger than the first major state school I attended, but my classes are smaller and my teachers as accessible as an email any time day or night.
Over the last few months I have had to travel for work and for family and my education has not had to be halted or paused in order for me to attend to the other things of importance in my life.
My school is implementing some of the finest technology for accessing information, providing data, and interacting with students with more planned innovations.
I also have more access to my academic adviser and financial aid adviser than I ever have had from a brick and mortar school. They are knowledgeable and with a quick phone call I can have questions answered and information about my education quickly. They call to check on my, periodically, too and make sure I know about programs and benefits that are accessible to me.
These things, and so many more, are important to me. Over the last two years I have moved states for employment, and my education came with me. I have changed schedules as I changed jobs, and my education did not falter. I have gone through busy seasons and still had the flexibility and options needed to continue achieving that goal I have had since I was five – to complete my degree.
The Good Students
The perception out there is that online education students are lazy, disengaged, unmotivated, undisciplined and not worth the time of considering. In response to a recently published article about online education a comment post by an NPR reader admitted that they would “discriminate in favor of a brick-n-mortar degree,” when considering hiring, but at what cost?
There are amazing students in the online classrooms that are happening 24/7 in our world. They have all of the qualities that employers say are lacking in the new workforce: discipline, self-starting, innovation, multi-cultural experience, technological know-how, and drive. At 32 I am just now in the final classes of my degree because of perseverance and adaptability, attributes I would bring to the workplace. I wasn’t lazy in pursing my education, I gained experience from life and opportunity beyond classic education.
While so many are trying to answer the question, “How do we qualify online education?” I think the answers are in the students that are choosing to pursue their career and educational goals despite obstacles. You give me a good instructor and course content and I will show you a thousand students that will walk away with knowledge, understanding and proven application through online education.
Does your company need people who can reach deadlines, work hard under pressure, prioritize and plan projects and juggle whatever is thrown at them – online students do these things every week. Discounting them is no longer a wise decision.
The Best Decision
I fully stand behind my decision to move my degree program online. It has not only suited my lifestyle, it has suited my desire to learn from a variety of voices, including my peers, develop skills that will take me into the future, and has supported a life-long love of learning that compliments my experience.
In a few months I will finally fulfill my own dream of obtaining my degree as well as show employers that I have the education they require. It is an education that has supplemented my experience. Not the other way around.