Online Degree Offered at Tech Attracts Students from NWA

by Paul Gatling (pgatling@nwabj.com) 99 views 

The normal college-education track for most undergrads takes four or five years.

With time running out, Heather Brody doesn’t have that long. 

“My son is in the 11th grade and I’ve always told him I would graduate from college before he graduated from high school,” she said. “I had to get myself in gear and get going.”

Brody, a married mother of two teenagers from Gravette, had previously taken classes at four other colleges since graduating high school in 1991, accumulating hours along the way but still short of a degree.

Because of a “last-minute decision” to return to school, Brody should make good on the promise to her son. She is one of numerous students from Northwest Arkansas enrolled in a new online program offered by Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.

Through its online bachelor of professional studies degree, ATU is providing adult Arkansans who have earned some college credit, but have not yet earned a degree, with an affordable option for completing their higher education.

The program had a startup cost of approximately $1.1 million, according to ATU spokesperson Susie Nicholson. That includes marketing expenses as well as technology, hardware, course development and staff.

It was launched with 27 new online courses this semester, and has an enrollment of 360 new students. That number includes 25 from Sebastian County, 21 from Benton County and 15 from Washington County.

Nearly 1,500 inquiries were received over a four-month period prior to the fall semester.

“That kind of response did surprise us,” said Mary Ann Rollans, dean of the College of Professional Studies and Community Outreach for ATU. “But what didn’t surprise us is that there is a need for this target demographic.”

The school has a goal of enrolling 1,000 students in the program in the 2012 fall semester.

“Right now we are working with 548 new prospects,” she said, adding that an increase in enrollment will certainly mean an increase in resources.

“We will have to [add resources],” she said. “If we say, ‘Come to us, come to us,’ then we have to take care of them.”

Rollans said the program is aimed toward people with family and career responsibilities, and three to five years work experience who face time, distance and financial barriers to on-campus learning.

“Everybody is looking for convenience, and our tuition rate is extremely attractive,” Rollans said, adding she expects Northwest Arkansas to be a fertile recruiting ground to help the program grow because of the types of business and industry in the area.

ATU offers its degree at $180 per credit hour, and even offers credit hours for prior learning.

“They took every single one of my previous college credit hours,” said Brody, whose degree has a concentration area of early childhood education, one of six concentrations that are options with the degree.

Others are criminal justice, agricultural business, industrial/organizational psychology, information technology and public relations.

Brody, who owns her own photography studio, plans to graduate in December 2012. She is taking nine hours this semester, and said she is fortunate she doesn’t have a full-time job, allowing her more flexibility to complete the course work.

Brooke Holland lives in Greenwood and is also a married mother of two, but her family circumstances changed three months ago with the birth of her second child.

Being able to continue her education while staying home with her newborn son is the biggest benefit of the program.

“I’ve tried to finish my degree off and on for about 10 years and I’ve always gone back to UAFS because that’s where I started, but that’s about 30 minutes away,” she said.

Holland said the cost of the program is comparable with UAFS — where current tuition rates per credit hour are $260.50, or $599.50 per 3-hour course — but she also saves money on gas and lunch without having to drive to UAFS four days each week.

Holland’s area of concentration for her degree is industrial/organizational psychology. She expects to graduate next year and hopefully land a job in human resources at a local hospital.

And all students who complete their online degree have the option to “walk” at their commencement ceremony at ATU.

“That’s what we want them to do,” Rollans said. “We would definitely love to shake their hand.”

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