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New Mexico State University

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NMSU college expands as nontraditional student population grows

Many full-time workers earn dozens of college credits, but not enough to complete their degrees. Some of them do not return to school because the classes they need conflict with their work schedules or are not offered anymore. Others may have been out of school so long that the course catalogs have changed and they need to start over again.

e education is helping many of these nontraditional students finish their degrees, said Carmen Gonzales, vice president for student success and dean of New Mexico State University's newest college, the College of Extended Learning. Additionally, the College of Extended Learning offers flexible programs to serve students with degree plans and academic experiences that do not fit the traditional mold. The Bachelor of Applied Studies and the Bachelor of Individualized Studies allow students to earn degrees that build on prior academic experiences.

She gave the example of a former graphic arts student who was allergic to a chemical used by the department. Without his bachelor's degree, he could not pursue a master's degree in education. Through its Bachelor of Individualized Studies program, the College of Extended Learning helped him earn his degree. He is now student teaching and working on his master's degree.

Gonzales said another student, enrolled in elementary education, wanted to switch to special education, but this would have required another year and a half of courses. For the same amount of time, the student earned her bachelor of individualized studies degree and then enrolled in a master's degree program. When she is finished, she will have her master's degree and teaching certificate.

"I think the bachelor of individualized studies degree could be like an incubator for potential new degrees," Gonzales said. "For example, students enrolled in our Creative Media Institute do not get a CMI degree; they get a bachelor's of individualized studies degree. But we're going to move forward with our plans to create a CMI degree, because we're sure this will be a popular degree."

The College of Extended Learning also offers a bachelor of applied studies degree, which Gonzales says is a little harder to earn. This program is designed for students with an associate of applied sciences or equivalent degree from an accredited university.

"We're reaching out and getting students who would never come to NMSU," she said.

Reaching out to these students requires a major shift in thinking, said William Flores, NMSU's executive vice president and provost.

"The idea is that you don't necessarily want to squeeze a round peg into a square hole," he said. "You want to give them (students) some flexibility."

He pointed out that the fastest growing age group in colleges and universities are students between 34 and 54, a group not only wanting distance education, but advanced degrees as well. To accommodate these students, many who work between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., more night courses will be offered at NMSU in the evenings or on weekends.

"We want to make it possible for most degrees, especially high demand degrees, to be offered throughout the day, in the evening, on the weekend, or eventually online," Flores said.

One of New Mexico State University's many goals is to develop targeted degrees in procurement or scientific lab management, two fields that could combine different strengths from the university's various colleges, Flores said. Another goal is to expand offerings at White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base and Fort Bliss, he said.

One of the arguments against online degree programs is that they do not have the ambience of a "live" classroom. Flores agreed that some people learn better in highly structured classes, but he added that working adults who are used to being on their own want to get their class assignments and do them quickly. He cited a survey conducted by the National Education Association in 2000 in which the faculty found the level of student learning and performance in traditional and distance education to be about the same. The only negligible difference was that the students liked online teaching better.

In a Sloan Foundation survey, thousands of students and faculty were interviewed. Faculty in research universities said students learned just as well or better in online courses as in traditional classes.

Flores said traditional classes are good for students who need remedial courses, have poor study skills, or need structure or tutoring. For others, though, distance education is a better fit.

"The reality is that the demographics are changing," Flores said. "We have a declining percentage of students graduating from high school who go on to college. As a consequence, universities must be much more creative, much more innovative, and much more flexible in not only providing the services on campus, but also in a way in which we can take these same services out to the communities, to the pueblos, to our border regions and to the armed forces bases so those people can get the degrees they need."

Gonzales said the biggest challenges of expanding distance education lie in two areas - bureaucracy and funding.

"We can plan on two or three years to get new programs approved, even though the state legislature and our constituents want programs established quickly so we can respond quickly to their various wants and needs," she said. While she acknowledged the need for checks and balances in the system, Gonzales said bureaucratic processes in state government and higher education could move a little more quickly to meet the needs of a rapidly changing society and workforce.

The other major obstacle is funding. If distance education received more funding, "our college could be twice as big," Gonzales said. It's a challenge that can be overcome, she said, believing that the future of distance education is important if higher education is to survive. But even though many universities are clamping down on unnecessary expenditures, New Mexico State University is devoting even more money to the growth of its distance education program.

"Funding should follow growth," Gonzales concluded

Bob Nosbisch
Sept. 19, 2006