Graduating in Overtime
By James Nold Jr. from February 2014 Issue
Credit: Tim Webb
It's never too late to finish that college degree you started years ago. Find out how these nontraditional students did it
What he now recognizes was personal immaturity, aggravated by the departure of the coach who'd recruited him following the death of his brother in Oklahoma, caused basketball player George Selden to leave Eastern Kentucky University in 2000, at the start of what would have been his senior year.
As he was leaving Richmond, he asked the friend who was driving him to pull over and stop the car. Selden got out, looked back at the campus, and made a vow out loud: "I'll be back. I don't know when, but I'll be back." At the time this article went to press, the 33-year-old was on track to graduate from EKU in December 2013.
In 1977, when she left college at Ohio State University in the middle of her sophomore year, Lisa Matthews promised her father she'd finish her degree one day.
A lot of life intervened—five children, more than 25 years' worth of jobs in Olympia, Washington, and Provo, Utah. But she fulfilled her promise in the summer of 2011, graduating from the University of Louisville, and doubled down—at age 55, she's on schedule to graduate from U of L law school this spring.
Jenny Rieck, 44, set herself a deadline: she was determined that she was going to get a bachelor's degree before her daughters were old enough to start considering college. "I wanted to be able to tell them how important I thought it was," she says. "I didn't feel I could convince them if I hadn't completed my degree." She made it in May 2012, graduating from Eastern Kentucky University well ahead of time—her daughters were ages 9 and 11.
Joe Strader, 58, comes from a family in which most of his cousins had college degrees, except him. "I can't remember a family reunion that it wasn't mentioned to me about me not going to college," he says. "Every time we would get together there would be conversations about how great all the cousins were doing in their professions. And I'd think, 'Yeah, you tell me that every time we get together.'"
The family now has something else to talk about. Strader has graduated with a degree from Western Kentucky University in technology management. At press time he was scheduled to walk at WKU's December 2013 graduation wearing the gold braid that designates summa cum laude (Strader earned a 3.9 GPA).
When a public policy purpose matches up with a personal milestone, the results can be powerful.
Since 2008, Project Graduate, a joint endeavor of the Council on Postsecondary Education and the state's public universities, has encouraged the state's institutions of higher learning to find a pathway to a bachelor's degree for adults who have gotten more than halfway through college. (Currently, eligible students should have 80 hours or more of credit; a bachelor's degree typically requires 120-125 hours.)
So far, more than 1,000 have succeeded, and the program has won national recognition.
Schools have offered incentives to students eligible for Project Graduate, waiving application fees, offering a tuition discount on a future semester, or priority enrollment in classes. One key to the program has been providing what project facilitator Sue Patrick calls "high-touch services" to the returning students.
Lisa Cox, who runs the Project Graduate program at Eastern Kentucky University, says one-on-one advising is key for their effort. (They've had more than 200 graduates since 2009.) "From the moment that they express an interest, we've got somebody that's walking by their side, that's helping to navigate any kind of obstacles that might be in place," she says.
It takes "a fine eye for detail" to plan the route to a degree, Cox says. It's not easy to validate older credits. Many returning students left in academic trouble, which makes it more difficult for them to get financial aid. Receiving federal assistance requires a solid academic plan with a graduation date, which Cox helps students prepare.
Sometimes she recommends that instead of a traditional major, returning students take what's sometime called a "completer degree" in general studies. It's easier to validate older credits for such a degree than it would be in a major in which the state of knowledge has dramatically changed. Rieck says she was interested in a business degree, but discovered that some of her previous courses, e.g., economics and accounting, would not meet the requirements for a business degree and switched to general studies. She says the change was important in her finishing the degree easily.
Sometimes what Cox provides to assist working adult students is flexibility—staying late or working through lunch, so she can accommodate work schedules. Sometimes the difficulty she helps them with is emotional.
"Many of these students are very nervous about coming and trying again," she says. She mentions "very tearful conversations," especially with women who left college to become mothers and who fear "that they're not going to be able to measure up." For example, they worry they lack the necessary computer skills. (Cox has the perfect solution for that worry: she enrolls the student in a computer class.)
But what returning students often find is that as they've gotten older, they've changed in ways that make academics easier than they had been before.
Rieck says that as an adult, she felt more comfortable than when she was younger to ask questions in class or to speak to her professors outside the classroom. She says she found herself putting more into school and enjoying it more.
The group of adults with "some college" but no degree is one of the largest educational cohorts in the state, numbering 516,000; another 186,000 possess an associate's but not a bachelor's degree.
From one angle, they might seem like the most low-hanging fruit for an effort to increase the educational attainments of Kentucky's work force. But the obligations that working adults have to their families and jobs limit the time they can devote to school—and falls outside the traditional time-and-place requirements of college. (See Learn on Demand sidebar on page 21.)
Strader is self-employed, performing vibration testing on industrial equipment (mostly printing presses). His work takes him all across North America, so all of the courses he needed to complete his degree were either online or independent study. He says he only set foot on WKU's campus once or twice. His path to a degree demonstrates what he calls "the availability of going to school without going to school."
He did it online from necessity—he travels almost constantly for work, and he has a significant hearing impairment—but Strader says he discovered he really enjoyed learning in that fashion. In the online discussions required in many of his classes, "I got to 'meet' a lot of people that I would not have met" and engage in long, congenial discussions. He doubts that classroom discussions would be as rewarding. "It's a more interesting learning experience," he says.
Alan Plunkette, a 39-year-old Murray student, also had a job that made unusual demands on his time. As an electrical maintenance supervisor for a Calvert City company, he was frequently on-call, and often had to come in in the middle of the night. (He's since changed jobs and is a maintenance planner for Wacker Chemical Corporation in Calvert City.)
Plunkette is pursuing a bachelor's of science in business from Murray, with an area in computer information systems that is given entirely online.
Plunkette says the online classes have been harder than traditional classes were for him. It had always been easy for him to attend lectures, pick up on what the professor emphasized, and do well in a class. Online, "there's a lot less direction" and he has to master all of the course material.
"When I get home from work, I sit down on the couch with my laptop and I'm there until I go to bed, every night," he says. Taking time from his family has been the hardest part of resuming college, he says, but he says his wife agrees "that in the long run it'll be worth it." While he was concerned that school might not come as easily to him as it did when he was younger, so far he's made A's in every class.
Sue Patrick, the Project Graduate facilitator and director of communications for the Council for Postsecondary Education, relates the project to the state's strategic educational goals: "the need to create the highly skilled, competitive work force that we need in Kentucky."
The Council's president, Robert King, expands on Patrick's point. The nature of many jobs is changing: King points to nursing, where new medications and technologies and new systems such as electronic medical records have transformed the playing field; at the same time, nurse practitioners and physicians' assistants are taking on functions previously carried out by doctors.
"There's a great need within (the healthcare) community to elevate nurses who have an associate-level nursing license to develop the additional capabilities that come with a bachelor's degree," King says.
He also mentions that a number of employers, in a variety of industries, have told him that, as the baby boomers retire, "there are literally thousands of employees they'd like to see move up to senior roles, but need some additional formal education."
Plunkette was valedictorian of his high school class at Livingston Central High School in Smithland and attended Murray State University on a scholarship. But like many young men before and since, he didn't have a clear sense of what he wanted to do and had an inclination to partying. He went from Murray to community college and then out of school altogether.
He'd gotten an associate's of applied science in electronics engineering in his 20s. Three years ago, when he got the electrical maintenance supervisor job, he soon realized that he wouldn't progress without more education: "I'd reached my ceiling without a bachelor's degree." He expects to graduate in May 2015.
Selden, a native of California, tried out for the NBA and played professional basketball in Mexico after leaving Eastern Kentucky University. Following a 2008 back operation that sent his playing career in a different direction, toward coaching, he began coaching kids on basketball skills.
Teaching young people "the proper way to play basketball" is important to him. During his own career, he says, his height (6'8") caused coaches to play him at center or power forward, and so he didn't learn some of the finer-tuned ball handling and shooting skills that would have helped him in his career.
But Selden realized that to be a basketball coach in any institution, he'd need a bachelor's degree. With help from an NCAA program that covers tuition, fees, and books for athletes who've exhausted their eligibility—the Degree Completion Award—he returned to EKU at the beginning of 2013. "I want to be a player developer," he says, "teaching players essential skills at the collegiate or NBA level."
Being self-employed, Strader has not seen any job advancement from his degree, although he says he learned a good deal of practical information from his classes, things he didn't know before. And he hadn't really suffered professionally from the lack of a degree. He says in 25 years, he's only lost one job from not having his bachelor's: as a possible expert witness in a trial (the lawyers felt a degree would be an important validating credential for a jury).
So his reasons for getting his degree have been more internal. "One of my motivations was to shut my family up," he says, sounding not angry but amused. "And there was some self-motivation, to prove to myself that I could do it.
"I wanted to be able to put that star in my book."
Learn on Demand
In 2009, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System introduced its Learn on Demand program. It arose from a survey by the Council on Postsecondary Education that found working adults were interested in attending college "if the delivery system would meet their lifestyle," says KCTCS Chancellor Jay Box.
"They cannot commit to 16-week semesters for multiple years to get their degree—it's possible, but it's very, very difficult."
In Learn on Demand, online classes are divided into modules, or small chunks of the entire course that cover anywhere from three to five weeks' worth of material. The modules are what's called "competency-based." Each one begins with a pretest. If you score highly enough, you can go ahead and take the module's final exam. If you pass, you can skip the module and continue on to the next. If you can move more quickly through any module than the scheduled number of weeks, you can. (There's a "closed exit" that requires students to finish in a certain amount of time.)
The program is on-demand the same way a Netflix movie is: students can begin at any time. Any time—24/7, 365 days a year. (You can begin classes 24 hours after online registration.) Advising is also available seven days a week, including weekends, and the program includes "success coaches" who, according to Box, are charged with reaching out to students, not simply waiting for them to call.
I asked Box if access to advising meant you could get help on Christmas morning. "You bet," he says. "We do have people who do that."
The first courses made available were the general education courses required for KCTCS associate's of arts and associate's of science degrees. The degrees being offered include business management, information technology, and several certificates and degrees in the "nursing pathway." KCTCS hopes this spring to offer a degree in integrated engineering technology (also called industrial maintenance technology).
In the spring 2013 semester, there were 838 students taking Learn on Demand courses; 85 percent of them were over age 25. Since 2009, students taking at least some of their courses through LOD have earned 193 associate's degrees, 143 certificates, and 76 diplomas. Most interestingly, the Learn on Demand students slightly outperform on-campus KCTCS students: Box says 88 percent of LOD students make a passing grade, as opposed to 85 percent of on-campus students and 77 percent of those taking online courses in a traditional semester structure.
Learn on Demand serves as the model for a new effort, tentatively called Kentucky Commonwealth College, that will also use the same kind of around-the-clock, competency-based and modular approach. It's a partnership between the state's four-year universities and the Council on Postsecondary Education.
CPE President Robert King says the KCTCS experience proves that "online learning, done properly, is just as effective" as the traditional classroom setting.
Cheryl King, the former head of Adult Education for Kentucky who is serving as a senior policy advisor to the CPE, says the approach "gives you more flexibility, and has the potential to accelerate your pathway through a course and ultimately on toward a degree." It can be, she says, "not just a savings in time, but a savings in money."
The plan, she says, is for universities to share courses that are part of specific Commonwealth degrees. While students will declare a home institution, and must take 25 percent of their courses there, they can take courses offered by any participating schools, at a common tuition. "They won't have to go through the transfer process at multiple institutions in order to take courses at different institutions," she says.
An employer advisory panel will consult with Commonwealth College to coordinate courses and degrees with the knowledge needed for jobs in the state.
Robert King says that the CPE plans to include Kentucky Commonwealth College in its budget request to the General Assembly this winter.
College life credits
It's the reality behind the "school of hard knocks" cliché: living and working teaches you as much as or more than college. Sometimes, we don't know what it has taught us until we sit down and reflect on it.
One of the many ways that Kentucky colleges are accommodating working adults is by turning their existing knowledge into college credit. Reflecting on what experience has taught us is in itself a valuable form of learning; through it, we see old learning with a new level of understanding and appreciation—and there are ways to turn old learning into new.
This has existed for 45 years in the form of the CLEP tests administered by the College Board, a program not dissimilar to the Advanced Placement tests high school students take.
But institutions are coming up with their own, more finely tuned ways to measure what their students already know. Western Kentucky University has recently developed an interesting program (at present going through the university's approval process) for what's called in education circles "prior learning assessment."
In WKU's program, students will sign up for a three-credit-hour class on how to put together a portfolio that reflects what they've learned professionally; as WKU adult learner counselor John Hart puts it, "what college-level learning you experienced and received" in your job. He gives an example of someone who spent 10 years in the Army working with computers.
The portfolio will go into detail and be presented to a faculty assessor in the appropriate discipline. The assessor will compare the learning demonstrated by the portfolio with the learning objectives of various classes, and award credit accordingly.
According to Hart, the portfolio class will encourage students to "think outside the box" to come up with effective, high-quality ways to present what they've learned. He says it could be "a performance, an artifact, a Web site"—whatever suits the material, as long as it is a way of reflecting on what has been learned.
Hart says that students might be eligible for up to a quarter of the hours of credit required for a WKU degree through portfolios, a number roughly equal to a year of college.
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