Back to School, Online

Opportunities open as educational landscape changes


As fans cheered the Gamecocks’ first win of the season against the Tar Heels, Tommy Phelps, a lifelong USC football fan, joined in with more enthusiasm than usual. For the very first time, the 48-year-old was rooting for his favorite team as a fellow student.

With a daughter, Caroline, at Hammond who will be attending college in two years and a wife, Sue, who graduated summa cum laude from Columbia College, Tommy is surrounded by those who value higher education, which fueled his desire to finish his college degree. His original plan to work on an associates degree at Midlands Technical College and transfer to USC was deferred in 1986 when he accepted a promotion at JanPak that involved a move from the warehouse into sales.

“I decided to try my hand at sales and never looked back,” he says. While he hasn’t been hindered by not having a bachelors degree, Tommy says he missed out on some leadership skills that would have been helpful throughout his career. He credits Dr. Susan Elkins, Chancellor of USC’s new Palmetto College, for moving him to action.  

“Dr. Elkins spoke to our Rotary Club this past year about USC’s new program,” he says. “It occurred to me that I could earn a bachelor’s degree through this program while continuing to work and participate in community activities.”

In August, as 30,000 new and returning students arrived on USC’s campus to begin the fall semester, Tommy and 500 others began their educational journey online through Palmetto College.

“The flexibility to complete assignments after I’ve spent time with my family is what makes this all possible,” says Tommy. “I can watch a class webinar, post comments to the discussion board, and professors reply the same day.” 

As an employee, husband, dad and active member at Shandon Methodist Church, Tommy started his first semester taking two classes to gauge the course load. “It’s a juggling act to balance work, family and school,” he says. “However, I’ve made it a priority to be a Carolina alumnus by 2017.”

For many adults like Tommy, work and family responsibilities force education goals out of reach. Add in lofty tuition and book fees, and finishing or starting a new degree can seem nearly impossible. Thanks in part to a shift in thinking among higher educational providers, these and other barriers are disappearing as the number of online degree opportunities increase throughout the United States. Hybrid approaches to education that combine in-class learning with online experiences are increasing in numbers and are dramatically changing the way faculty engage students. Leaders from USC have embraced this opportunity as they’ve worked over the past few years developing a new online model through Palmetto College. 

Susan Elkins, Ph.D., is leading the effort to increase access to higher education for South Carolinians. She spearheaded Tennessee Technological University’s extended education program and has 20 years of experience in developing blended models of education. 

“Palmetto College was designed to expand educational access to those who simply have not been able to complete coursework through the traditional method,” says Susan. “The online model provides educational access to a myriad of students across South Carolina, including those in remote areas of the state and those in the middle of their careers who are juggling families and other responsibilities.” 

The program will serve as the central administrative unit for the university’s regional campuses. Seven online degree completion programs are housed under the Palmetto College administrative umbrella; the actual degrees are managed by the four-year campuses offering the specific degrees, including USC Aiken, USC Beaufort, USC Upstate and USC Columbia. Degree options include bachelors of science in Business Administration, Human Services, Criminal Justice and Nursing and bachelors of arts in Elementary Education, Organizational Leadership and Liberal Studies. The program’s degrees are designed to meet the needs of the workforce and lead to employment. 

“Pathways into Palmetto College include the regional campuses, technical colleges and transfers from other online or traditional programs,” Susan says. 

Newberry College is also capitalizing on the burgeoning enthusiasm for online education through its fastFORWARD program. Launched in 2010, the program offers blended degree completion programs in early childhood education and organizational management. Both are designed for ambitious adults who already have earned at least 60 college credit hours and who want to complete a bachelors degree. Because fastFORWARD students are typically already managing the responsibilities of work and family, the courses are a blend of evening class meetings and online collaboration. 

“Newberry College currently offers blended courses for adults toward a bachelor of science in Early Childhood Education with Teacher Certification,” says Timothy Elston, executive vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of the College. “We also will be starting an RN-BSN program in a blended format for adults in January 2014 and a bachelor of science in Business Administration in Fall 2014. Additional programs will be rolled out beginning January 2015.” 

Jessie Udall touts Columbia International University’s AccessCIU program, a blended model of traditional and online coursework, as highly flexible. With an associates degree from Tri-County Technical College and undergraduate credit hours from Northwestern College, Jessie transferred to CIU when she moved to Columbia with her husband. She completed her bachelor’s degree and went on to enroll in the accelerated Masters Program in Intercultural Studies.

“As the needs of students change,” she says, “the key to thriving and successfully completing a usable degree is in the flexible nature of earning that degree.” 

Jessie says she’s always been a non-traditional student, wanting to fit school into her life rather than make school her life focus. “I chose the blended model of earning a degree because it allowed me to continue participating in ministry and stay involved with church and community. Taking some courses online freed me up to have a real life.”

CIU offers nine programs online and 15 more through a hybrid approach that combines online options with on-campus learning in either Columbia or Atlanta.   

CIU Provost James Lanpher, Ph.D., sees online models as a great benefit to students. “Convenience and flexibility make education possible for those who otherwise would not have had the opportunities because of geographical constraints,” says James.

Online options allow students to view videos, participate in discussion groups and complete other assignments at convenient times. James says, “A whole new world of possibilities is opened through this approach to education.” 

CIU emphasizes a commitment to regular communication between students enrolled in online options and faculty. “At CIU, we make sure faculty are intricately involved with the courses so that the online student is sure to get an education equivalent to the one the resident student receives.”

Midlands Technical College also is no stranger to online education. With six campus locations, the college uses blended models of education as an extension of its traditional model. Amanda Taylor, Public Affairs Coordinator for Midlands Technical College, says, “It’s currently possible for students to complete the entire Associate in Arts or Associate in Science Degree program online.” 

Through its Corporate and Continuing Education Division, Midlands Technical College offers more than 300 online courses. Most are designed to be completed in six to eight weeks with students devoting roughly two to four hours each week to completing lessons. 

Martin Jewell, an HVAC technician and Midlands Technical College online student, credits this non-traditional model with providing access to education that he would not have been able to obtain otherwise. “The fact that I could study, access online materials and test at my own pace was what I enjoyed most. In fact, I would not have been able to attempt this coursework any other way.”

As students like Martin, Jessie and Tommy take advantage of earning degrees without having to push the “pause” button on life, this wave of educational innovation will continue to grow, and as more and more institutions reconsider what constitutes an education, further change is sure to come.