It is 2,325 miles from Heidi’s home in North Carolina to the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. That’s the distance she traveled in June to receive her diploma for the bachelor’s degree she earned online.
It was Heidi’s first visit to Oregon State, but her roots in the university community run deep. For the better part of five years as an online learner, she felt valued and seen by her instructors and classmates. The authentic engagement bridged the coast-to-coast divide.
I had the honor of meeting many students like Heidi at the Oregon State Ecampus graduation reception in June. It was our first in-person graduation event in three years, and it revitalized me. It renewed my passion, as it does every time I meet an Ecampus student, to advocate even more for these adult learners from every conceivable background.
And it reinforced my belief that our UPCEA professional, continuing and online (PCO) community is uniquely positioned to lead in the world’s new education landscape. That begins by creating pathways to more affordable learning experiences and alternative credentials, and expanding those opportunities is a driving force behind the creation of UPCEA’s Alternative Credentials Network.
It’s clear that the need has never been greater. In May, a National Student Clearinghouse report showed that the population of adult learners with some college, no credential has soared to 39 million. In my home state of Oregon, nearly 800,000 individuals age 25 and older fit this description.
We must work harder. We must approach this dilemma differently. We must develop solutions that creatively address workforce needs and help students like Heidi — two decades after her first college experience — cross the finish line.
But there’s good news amid these disconcerting numbers. Collectively, our PCO community has never been better situated to deliver the opportunities that learners need and want to achieve upward mobility.
Expand the portfolio of offerings
Providing a platform for focused leadership and shared solutions, UPCEA’s Alternative Credentials Network is helping institutions develop high-quality programs that reduce the time and financial commitment required by full degree programs. The network provides the forum and structure to learn from one another and expand our knowledge about innovative offerings that meet learners’ evolving needs.
At Oregon State Ecampus, we have a growing collection of microcredentials online. These are designed to give students a non-degree pathway to gain new, specialized skills in a series of three courses or more. Our efforts come at a time when Encoura / Eduventures recently revealed that interest in degrees among adult prospects has waned while interest in non-degree programming has increased.
Make learning more affordable
Providing alternative credentials is a forward-thinking step in the right direction. But increased affordability must be at the core of our work in the PCO community, regardless of the program type or initiative.
From her home in North Carolina, Heidi developed a strong preference for online learning because, she said, it provided the accessibility and affordability she needed in order to complete her degree. Testimonials such as hers serve as a reminder of the barriers so many adult learners face on their academic journeys.
Earlier this year, Oregon State launched an applied humanities online bachelor’s program that offers eligible students a zero-tuition benefit for their final 12 credits. The program is designed to help students with some college experience finish their degrees in an affordable manner.
Other colleges and universities offer a variety of creative degree-completion pathways. We are paving the way for our educational institutions to further adopt the innovations that we in the PCO community have worked so hard to develop throughout the years.
I’m proud to be part of a community that understands the importance of supporting all learners — no matter their age, background, varied education goals or whatever their learning preferences are. And I’m excited to continue working alongside and learning from you.
Lisa L. Templeton is Associate Provost at Oregon State University Ecampus, and is UPCEA’s 2022-2023 Board President.