Educational Outreach builds online enrollment with reputation for quality

A survey showed that most WCU online degree program students have families and work full time.

Western Carolina University’s online learning programs continue an upward enrollment trend that parallels the university’s overall enrollment, building upon a reputation for student support services and academic rigor.

There are 2,121 undergraduate and graduate students currently enrolled in online degree programs though WCU. Online enrollment has grown steadily in the past four years, at an annual rate of 2 to 5 percent, with indicators pointing to similar rates into the immediate future. That online growth mirrors a national trend, but across the nation, the total number of students going to college through both online and face-to-face classes is declining.

Susan Fouts, director of WCU’s Division of Educational Outreach, which supports online degree programs, said the success stems from a combination of several factors, all of which emphasize a quality educational experience and accommodate online students.

“Western Carolina University understands our students,” Fouts said. “A 2016 survey showed that most of our students work full time, have families and own homes, all the usual obligations of modern life. By understanding the make-up of these students, WCU provides services to students on their schedule, not a routine 9 to 5 schedule.”

That means availability for online and potential online students must be a top priority, Fouts said. Students can always make an appointment with the distance and online programs staff for consultation outside of regular business hours, a service that is available 24 hours a day “because we know our distance students are not studying at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. They are studying after putting children to bed and other adult chores,” she said.

WCU was listed among the nation’s top providers of online degree programs in a collection of rankings released this year by U.S. News & World Report. In its examination of undergraduate and graduate online programs offered by higher education institutions across the country, the magazine ranked WCU in 76th place among 226 schools in a category for “Best Online Bachelor’s Programs.” The university offers online bachelor’s degree programs in birth-kindergarten education, criminal justice, emergency and disaster management, emergency medical care, engineering technology, business administration and law, and innovation leadership and entrepreneurship, plus a program allowing registered nurses to earn their bachelor’s degree in nursing. Online master’s degree programs include construction management, entrepreneurship, health sciences, human resources, special education, nurse educator, nurse leadership, project management, school administration, sport management, and elementary and middle grades education.

John Grindstaff

John Grindstaff is a graduate of the master’s degree program in entrepreneurship and works as supervisor for Air Medical Services at Mission Hospitals in Asheville. His undergraduate degree from Lees-McRae College is in nursing, but he said his WCU graduate degree adds valuable skills to his resume and rounded out his educational profile. As he puts it, “I have been able to put the course work to good use in my current role. Marketing skills, budget and financial planning, and marketplace assessment are all a part of my duties. These skills were core learning objectives in the master of entrepreneurship program. I can recommend WCU’s distance learning program, without hesitation, to other working adults that want to extend their knowledge and expand their world,” he said.

Entrepreneurial skills are in demand, no matter the field or career path, Grindstaff said, adding that WCU could not have made his learning experience any easier. Convenient class times, professor access and support programs all seemed to be tailored to working professionals, he said.

“Students love the flexibility in obtaining their degree online through relevant course work, and they appreciate the opportunities to connect face-to-face in volunteer, training and internship experiences,” said Lisa Briggs, director of WCU’s Emergency and Disaster Management Program. “Technological developments allow educational opportunities to be delivered to those who are place-bound, due to employment or other barriers. Distant education students enjoy current and relevant content and aren’t simply participating in correspondence courses.

“Our faculty use tools and pedagogy that fosters a rigorous, high-quality learning environment that is simply delivered online,” Briggs said. “We are very proud of our adult learners as they see the value in each course, the journey of education, and are not simply seeking the end goal of obtaining a degree.”

The majority of online students at WCU are resuming studies and seeking degree completion, Fouts said. “They have already started elsewhere. Most have completed an associate’s degree at a community college, spent four or five years working, perhaps starting a family,” she said. “They are not looking to be on the football team or in the band. Their collegiate needs are for a career move.”

Educational Outreach also has a “no transfer” phone policy for calls, meaning working professionals don’t have to navigate a series of office numbers and emails. Staff also provide guidance on managing multiple priorities and balancing family, school and work.

“Our primary responsibility in the admissions and retention process is to let student know ‘You can do this’ and then to provide the resources and support to assist the student,” Fouts said. “It is important that we advise students against doing too much or not enough. It takes a student a long time to complete a degree if they only take one course a semester. However, by taking too many courses they may burn out before graduating.”

For more information on online programs, contact Tony Miller, associate director for distance learning, at agmiller@wcu.edu or 828-227-3072.