THE BLOG
04/12/2013 05:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

Tear Down the Wall Between You and Your College Degree

We're living in a world where the traditional model of a 4-year college right after high school isn't necessarily the best solution for everyone. With all of the advances in technology and education over the last couple of decades, education has stepped up to reduce the barriers to gain a degree and to increase the opportunity for and practicality of higher education. In today's economy, a more flexible, cost effective solution to gaining a degree is in demand. Programs like the UMass Amherst University Without Walls (UWW) deliver the best of both worlds, allowing more people access to degrees, while not forcing them to put their professional careers on hold. This means less student debt when the degree is complete, and the ability to have a foot in the door on a chosen career path as opposed to starting a job search in one's senior year.

The University of Massachusetts established their University Without Walls program in 1971 as a non-traditional way for adults to complete a bachelor's degree, and their program has become one of the most successful of its kind. This is why I decided to finish up my schooling after being busy in the high-tech and nonprofit worlds for the past twelve years. I have always wanted to complete my educational credentials, but never had the incentive to drop out of my life and take the time to immerse myself in the traditional college experience. With UWW, I didn't have to.

The UMass UWW program has so far awarded over 3,000 adults with bachelors of arts and science degrees -- we're talking about people like Julius Erving (basketball's Dr. J) and Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor -- who didn't have the time to immerse themselves in an onsite college program but wanted to gain the credentials on top of their already impressive careers.

Tearing Down the Walls

University Without Walls was founded in the early '70s as an experimental program involving seventeen respected schools around the US, including UMass in Amherst, Skidmore in New York State, Goddard College in Vermont, New College in Florida and the University of Minnesota. In that era's culture of change, efforts to make higher education more flexible and responsive to the needs of nontraditional students were embraced by thousands who didn't fit the traditional mold. As The New York Times expressed in a 1970 article called "What Tearing Down the 'Walls' Can Do": "..the old assumption that four years of classroom attendance, to follow immediately after high school, is the best road to a bachelor's degree is being questioned." The Times article lauded the University Without Walls for providing flexible educational access in the form of part-time student status, evening courses, independent studies and credit for work and life experience for non-traditional students who want to be or have to be "learners and doers at the same time." The University Without Walls has become an inspiration for other online learning institutes. Flexible enough for almost any learning style, it has truly become one of the most applauded and efficient ways to complete a degree in higher education.

UWW is one of the largest majors at UMass Amherst as well as that school's largest online undergrad program. Unlike many other online learning platforms, many of which operate on a sub-contractor, adjunct model, UWW at UMass has twelve full-time faculty and five full-time administrative workers to support the 800+ students who engage with the program each semester.

University Without Walls allows its enrolled students to custom design programs of study and earn college credit through their work in the real world. Students can customize their own program of study within a variety of areas, including Arts Administration, Business Studies, Children's Learning and Development, Criminal Justice, Early Care and Education, Health and Human Services, Journalism Studies and Sustainability. These areas of study, combined with credits for life experience and possibilities for work based credits make the program a perfect fit for many students. And although the program is meant to be pursued from anywhere in the world, students work together remotely to share ideas and support each other during their tenure at UMass.

Another Way Technology Supports Change

I write a lot about how advances in technology are supporting the ability for people to be more connected around the world, and my experience as a student at UWW backs up this perspective. I appreciate that a program like UWW attracts a diverse population of undergraduates across the spectrum geographically, culturally and by age. I see the other students I engage with doing future-forward things that inspire me to work harder, be a better student and collaborate more often with others. My online experience has actually given me more confidence in my offline networking experience. It provides a learned point of view that establishes a greater sense of confidence in one on one conversations with other professionals. It has also given me the time to grow as a professional and be a student at the same time. A luxury traditional schooling often does not afford.

As an example, this progressive hybrid learning model has allowed me to expand my work as president of the charity organization Curry Without Worry. We just served 100,000 free meals to the people of San Francisco, and just launched an online campaign helping us to feed 100,000 more. My volunteer time here would be much harder to accomplish while I work towards a degree without the flexibility and support of UMass's online systems. Other examples of UWW giving me time for my career include the time I have had to be involved with amazing networking groups such as The Social Venture Network. I have been able to get college credit for work I am doing in campaigns I believe in, such as The Stamp Stampede. To stay sharp in my present day skills, I also was able to receive credit for courses taken at The Orielly School of Technology.

UMass University Without Walls

Not all online degrees are made equal.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst is accredited at the highest standards by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the regional accrediting agency for the New England states. Recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, NEASC accredits all of the region's public universities (University of Connecticut, University of New Hampshire, etc.) as well as many private ones (Brown, Harvard, MIT, etc.).

What I'm saying here all boils down to this. Without UMass UWW, I don't believe I would ever attain a degree from one of these great schools, but now I know that if I work hard at it, someday I can. Just knowing that means the world to me, and hundreds of other's past and present, who consider their choice to go back to school one of the the most rewarding things they have done in their adult lives. Thanks to this program, I get to have both feet firmly planted in the real world of business, networking, grassroots action and political activism -- and go to school at the same time. One day, I too will get to have a degree from The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, hanging on my wall, and supporting my growth as a professional out in the world.

This story is part of my Businesses With Impact Series, and now expanding into Educational Programs with Impact. Follow me on Twitter @jesseseaver, and keep in touch with me about your education, your business, and any good work you are doing so that I can help spread the word. Here's to the joy of learning!