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Debra Townsley Headshot

Improving Accessibility for Tomorrow's Students Today

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For an economy to flourish, students must have access to higher education that suits their schedule. According to a study from USAID, an additional year of secondary or university-level education in a country raises national output by 19 percent. While many qualified students want to pursue post-secondary education, they often face challenging roadblocks to overcome. Each circumstance is unique. Whether students are raising a child, working more than one job or taking care of an aging parent, they all share a common thread - they are desperately seeking access to higher education but do not want to sacrifice their existing work-life balance.

Over the last few years, higher learning institutions have received feedback from students and their families that shows a national trend that the convenience of receiving an education is a key driver in whether or not they attend an institute of higher learning. The adult student population is skyrocketing, and it is critical that we understand that these students have a much more intricate schedule than the 18- to 24-year-old demographic if we want to be relevant in impacting today's economy.

Higher education institutes have been working diligently in recent years to develop solutions that meet the needs of adult learners. Evening classes have been the first answer most colleges and universities have implemented to increase educational opportunities for all student demographics. Many schools are offering an array of courses in the evening that lead to degrees for most if not all of the majors offered in traditional daytime classes.

However, given the rising amount of time people are commuting to and from work, these programs are not as helpful for some than in years past. Many students are consistently in motion, going from work during the day, to campus for class at night and then a commute back home for studying. The constant travel, paired with day-to-day challenges, creates a stressful, and ultimately counterproductive, environment for studies. These adult learners who have responsibilities beyond school need other options if they are to have time to complete a degree and pursue jobs that will ultimately help our economy grow.

In response, some colleges and universities have recognized the need to expand the offerings of higher education outside of the weekday, which sparked the launch of providing courses on Saturday mornings and afternoons. This schedule leaves students with their weeknights free to study and research, work and/or spend time with their family. These Saturday programs allow for larger blocks of learning at one time and, as a result, can help students complete their degrees quicker than the traditional four years and in turn contribute more quickly to overall economic growth.

Online courses are another avenue to increase the accessibility of higher education to adult learners, and they appeal greatly to students seeking a self-driven learning experience or those who have variable working schedules, such as jobs with rotating shifts. These courses naturally help in distance learning, particularly for students who want to earn a degree from your school but are unable to attend classes on campus for whatever circumstances. They allow students to pursue their degrees at the pace they seek, which therefore can result in the benefit of more educated individuals joining our workforce sooner.

Partnerships between baccalaureate and community colleges prove beneficial for students. There are now community college classes that allow students to transfer credits to four-year institutes of higher learning to obtain a baccalaureate degree, saving them considerable money and time in the process. This increased level of cross-training broadens the educational background and opportunities for participating students, a development that will enhance the economy by adding graduates with a wide range of experience.

All of these approaches are incorporated into what William Peace University offers its students, and they have resulted in major successes. Overall, our enrollment for our evening, online and Saturday programs has increase 357 percent for the 2012-2013 school year. We attribute some of this growth due to expanded access to many of our programs.

Educators need to review how they are making courses available for current and prospective students. There should be plenty of options in place for study to occur beyond the traditional weekday model, if our colleges and universities truly seek to upgrade economic activity by enabling students to learn, graduate and participate in the job market swiftly.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that on average, professionals with a bachelor's degree earn approximately 65 percent more per year than their counterparts without a degree. As educators, it should be our main focus to make every effort to assist people who want to earn such degrees for their benefit and the long-term success and effectiveness of our schools and our economy.

Dr. Debra M. Townsley is president of William Peace University (formerly Peace College), a private four-year university located in downtown Raleigh, N.C.