Diverse Conversations: Online Universities and Underserved Student Populations

College attendance has become a necessity for entry into the contemporary workforce. This shift is a direct result of President Obama’s goal of having the largest percentage of college graduates out of all the countries in the world by 2020. With this edict has come an influx of students that may not have attended college as early as a decade ago. That being said, online colleges are taking the president’s challenge to heart and paving the way for underserved students to earn degrees and a better living. To find out more about this trend, I sat down with Cynthia G. Baum, Ph.D., president of Walden University. Cynthia has more than 20 years of leadership experience in postsecondary education, during which she has served as a campus president and regional vice president for a number of institutions.

Q: How does online learning lead to success for first-generation and minority students?

A: Online education increases access to higher education, an attribute that is particularly relevant for first-generation and minority students. It provides an alternative for students who want to begin or continue their studies at any stage in their life, have family responsibilities to consider, or want or need to continue working while earning a degree. For many first-generation and minority students, an online learning environment helps make higher education possible.

As a first-generation college graduate myself, I know what my parents sacrificed to make sure that I could pursue the education I wanted. My parents were bright, hard-working people who had some college education but neither of them was able to complete their degree. There wasn’t a Walden University for them, where they could go to school and have a full-time job in order to support our family. Online institutions like Walden provide opportunities for students from all walks of life to get an education, advance their careers, and make an impact in their professions and communities.

Q: What are some of the benefits of online education for underrepresented populations?

A: The online learning environment allows students to network with classmates and faculty from across the country and around the world. In particular, for first-generation and minority students who may not have had the opportunity or experience to network with others beyond their local community, this presents an amazing opportunity to benefit from the practical experience and shared knowledge of their peers. Students learn to work with one another as part of a virtual team while gaining the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the workforce. In many cases, students are given the opportunity to immediately put what they have learned into practice.

Another benefit is the asynchronous online environment. There is a saying in the online classroom—there is no back row. Due to the nature of online learning, greater emphasis is placed on participation. Students must participate in discussions through online postings in their classrooms. Because of the asynchronous environment, students don’t feel rushed and have time to think through and reflect on their responses. It also provides the opportunity to share ideas in a safe environment, which can be a confidence booster for minority and first-generation students.

Q: What types of support services do online institutions need to offer in order to help first-generation and minority students succeed?

A: As they enter their programs, students can benefit from a new student orientation that helps them understand how to engage in the online classroom, identifies university resources available to them, and helps them think through important life areas such as time management and how to solicit the support of their family and friends. Self-assessments in writing and math can also help direct students to the support they may need in those areas. Having access to a well-resourced virtual library, research support, and a career services center provides students with tools and resources they need to be successful, build their networks, and move into a thriving career.

At Walden, we find it valuable to have support teams available 24/7 through email, phone, and chat to guide students with technical issues and to answer questions in areas such as registration and financial aid. We also provide other resources—such as virtual communities where students can connect with other students with similar career interests, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, hobbies, etc.—to help create a sense of camaraderie and belonging to the institution. This can be extremely valuable for first-generation or minority students who benefit from connections with classmates who share similar experiences and challenges.

Q: How can online institutions help guide first-generation students or others who may be at risk for not graduating?

A: We know from research that the first year of any student’s program is critical to their long-term higher education success. Assigning an academic advisor to the student from day one provides them with guidance and the necessary tools and resources to support their long-term success. Programs of study that are sequenced help to “scaffold” learning—where later courses build upon the skills of earlier ones—and take the guesswork out of what courses to take next. With the flexibility of online programs, students can fit school into THEIR life, not the other way around.

Just like brick and mortar institutions, online institutions can also provide writing tutors, math tutors, academic advisors, and career services professionals to support students at every stage of their learning experience. Effective mentors and support staff not only help students adjust to the online classroom but also support them to be confident, active participants in higher education. And virtual communities help to provide peer support. These types of support may not be available in the day-to-day environments of many minority or first-generation students and could be the critical difference in their higher education success.

Q: What role should online institutions like Walden continue to play in providing quality higher education?

A: It is clear that the online environment offers flexibility and convenience that is critical to the ability of working professionals to pursue their dreams of higher education. But at Walden, we not only offer convenience, we develop our programs starting with the end in mind; that is, the knowledge and skills that are important not only in the discipline being studied but also to employers in the field. We seek employer input and involve both subject-matter and curriculum design experts in determining the curriculum and design of every course. By using standardized assessment techniques, we have a wealth of data on what our students are learning in order to make continuous quality improvements in how and what we teach.

By providing students with access to both higher education and a quality learning environment, online institutions can provide students the opportunity to pursue their dreams, reach their potential, and use what they learn to make a difference in their professions, communities, and society at large.

That concludes my interview with President Cynthia Baum. I would like to thank her for consenting to this interview and for her contributions to the field of higher education.


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