Distance education programs meet the need for degree completion and professional graduate learning

On Sept. 5, when enrollment is finalized, Western Carolina University expects to announce record-breaking enrollment for the fifth year out of the last six. The university also anticipates being able to officially report growth of more than 20 percent in the last decade, a trend completely counter to enrollment declines happening across the country. In our series, WCU Thrives, we explore some of the programs and people that have played a role in this incredible momentum.

Today, we highlight the growth of online programs.

Across the country, enrollment in online courses and programs has ticked up each year for the last 13, according to the most recent data from the Online Learning Consortium. Western Carolina is no exception to that rule.

Since 2007, enrollment in online degree programs has grown from 1,624 students to 2,045, a 25 percent increase in 10 years. Some of that growth has been fueled by the expansion of certain degree programs to the online space, including a bachelor of science in business administration and law added in fall 2015 and a master of science in sport management added in 2016. Both programs have exceeded enrollment goals.

Susan Fouts, executive director of WCU’s Division of Educational Outreach, which supports all online degree programs, said the driving force behind the growth of distance education at WCU has been demand in the market.

“There is a need for individuals across the state to complete a bachelor’s degree or earn a graduate degree in order to progress in their careers,” Fouts said. “Many of those people cannot leave their jobs or their families to attend school, so they are looking for an alternative way to get that degree. I think WCU has stepped up and made the process easy through hands-on student support.

“Western has a reputation for personal service. That doesn’t just happen in the residential classroom; it happens in the online classroom. It doesn’t just happen in our division; it happens across the entire university.”

WCU offers eight undergraduate distance programs, 11 graduate degree programs, and five online post-baccalaureate certificate programs. (Check out distance.wcu.edu for more information.) Fouts said the undergraduate programs are designed for students who have completed some liberal studies coursework or earned their associate’s degree at a community college.

“The relationship between WCU and the community colleges is a critical piece in our growth,” Fouts said. “I think WCU has strengthened its relationship with the community colleges in many different ways, but primary is listening to the barriers that community college students have in terms of transferring and working to eliminate those barriers.”

Faculty buy-in and support from academic leadership also has played a role, Fouts said. The Online Learning Consortium’s most recent survey data indicates that nearly 30 percent of academic leaders nationally believe that online learning outcomes are inferior to those of face-to-face courses – a perception WCU works hard to combat.

“There are still some universities and faculty members that believe that online learning is not as high quality as face-to-face, and I think WCU proves that wrong,” Fouts said.