By Katharine Webster
Clarissa Eaton was 44 when she decided to finish the bachelor’s degree she’d begun half a lifetime ago.
She attended Boston University for three semesters before leaving at age 19 to buy a ballet studio in Littleton and get married. Seven years later, she was a single mom with two kids and two jobs: running L’Ecole de Ballet and teaching preschool. Since then, she’s added a third, part-time job with the Thoreau Society.
Now 47, Eaton will graduate from UMass Lowell this May with double majors in English and psychology after three years of taking online and on-campus classes through the Division of Online and Continuing Education (OCE). She plans to go on to a Ph.D. program in English so she can teach college students one day.
“I have three jobs, two children and two majors,” she jokes. “I don’t sleep much.”
Eaton is one of thousands of nontraditional students in the division, which has seen its enrollments – the number of classes students sign up for each academic year – more than double since 2007, despite exponential growth in the number of institutions competing to offer online programs. This spring the division topped 10,000 online course sign-ups for the first time: With another 2,300 enrollments in on-campus classes, that adds up to an 8.5 percent increase over spring 2015. Total course enrollments for the academic year, online and on-campus, are expected to meet or exceed 36,000.
OCE Co-directors Catherine Kendrick and Pauline Carroll say some of the division’s growth comes from traditional day students who take classes online to make up for time spent in a co-op or other job. Day students also take winter intersession and summer classes, which are run by the division. But most OCE students are “degree-completers” like Eaton or older students with jobs and family responsibilities looking for professional advancement.
The division is also continually offering new online degrees that build on the campus’ strengths, including new graduate programs in cybersecurity, business analytics, health informatics, security studies, information technology and engineering management. A newer marketing concentration within the M.B.A. program also saw a 137 percent increase in enrollments this past year.
On-campus enrollments are growing, too, due to the opening of a satellite campus in Haverhill with Northern Essex Community College, customized workforce training programs and expanded international programs.
Pathway to Campus
Ali Raza, 21, of Karachi, Pakistan, is one of more than 200 students from Asia, Africa and South America who come to campus through the Navitas program each year. Navitas students are conditionally admitted to a “pathway” program administered by OCE their first year. They take three semesters of College Writing-ESL classes along with eight regular academic courses spread over the fall, spring and summer, says Mary Barrett, who coordinates the program. Most of them go on to matriculate as full-time, regular university students the following year.
Raza, a sophomore majoring in finance and minoring in economics, says taking 11 classes over three semesters, instead of two, was key to his success. Although he had studied in English in Pakistan and could have taken only two semesters of College Writing-ESL, he decided to take all three ESL classes to improve his speaking ability.
“That really helped me,” he says.
Raza, like other Navitas students, had to earn a 2.5 GPA or better in order to matriculate. He exceeded his own expectations, doing so well that he now works for the Tutoring Center 15 hours a week, helping other students with economics and pre-management calculus.
The success of the OCE is also due to its quality, for which Kendrick and Carroll credit Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney’s leadership. Moloney introduced the first online classes 20 years ago when she was dean of continuing education, making UMass Lowell a pioneer in online learning. She also insisted that faculty undergo comprehensive training – not just in the technology, but in how to teach online classes effectively.
Over the past two decades, the university and individual faculty members have earned multiple national and international awards for online excellence. UMass Lowell is now ranked No. 39 for best online bachelor’s degrees by U.S. News and World Report – the second highest among all colleges, public or private, in New England – and No. 9 for online graduate education programs. It has similarly high rankings for its degrees in information technology, business and autism intervention.
Integrated Approach to Degrees
All the OCE’s certificate and degree programs are tightly integrated with traditional university offerings, allowing students to progress from one degree to another or from online to on-campus without interruption. At some other colleges, the online division is separate from the bricks-and-mortar campus, with online courses designed by outside consultants and taught by separate, adjunct faculty. But at UMass Lowell, many faculty members teach both on-campus and online, Carroll and Kendrick say.
The deans and departments oversee all faculty hiring and academic advising and courses are designed by the faculty who teach them.
“These are not cookie-cutter courses,” says Kendrick. “We want to have the unique personality of the faculty, as well as their own specialized expertise.”
All that adds up to a top-notch academic experience at an affordable price, says Eaton, who has won multiple scholarships for academic excellence, allowing her to finish her degree in three years.
“The professors, especially in the English Department, are so approachable and personable,” she says. “And the diversity of the students in age, ethnicity, experience and opinions really enhances the classes. I’ve met people serving in the military in Japan and made a friend from France. Living in a little town, I would never get that experience except in an online class.”