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by Laurie Schroeder
In an increasingly competitive job market, working adults are turning to local online learning programs to get ahead.

If she wanted to earn more money, Collingswood nursing assistant Sheryl Costen knew she would need to beef up her résumé. The college courses she’d taken 10 years—and a husband and two kids—ago, had gotten her in the door at a local cardiology practice, but scoring a higher-paying position would mean completing her degree.

Yet like most working adults, Costen, 32, didn’t have the time to return to a traditional college classroom. Instead, she joined the growing ranks of students earning college credits online.

“There’s no other way I could have pulled this off,” says Costen, who is working on a Licensed Practical Nursing degree at Camden County College. “I can’t just quit my job and go back to school right now.”

Costen isn’t alone. The number of students taking online college classes in the U.S. jumped by nearly a million last year, according to the annual Sloan Survey of Online Learning. About 5.6 million students—approximately one in three U.S. college students—were enrolled in one or more online courses in fall 2009. Moreover, the increase in demand for online learning is outpacing enrollment growth in traditional schools. Last year, online enrollments grew by 21 percent as the overall higher education population increased by just 2 percent. At Rutgers alone, enrollment jumped by about 80 percent from 2009 to 2010.

Part of the reason for that boom in students seeking certificates, undergraduate credits and graduate degrees is the changing nature of the job market, an increasingly challenging climate in which education can offer a competitive edge.

“More employers are requiring advanced degrees,” says Elizabeth Regan-Butts, director of the Division of Marketing and Recruitment at Rowan University. “For example, nurses in the past only had to have an [associate’s] degree. Now, most hospitals want a Bachelor of Science. The health care industry in particular is really starting to see some changes in this area.”

To accommodate that demand, South Jersey’s institutions of higher learning now offer many choices in online or e-learning programs, from complete associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs at universities like Rowan, to certificate programs at Burlington County College and Gloucester County College. Rutgers, for one, offers everything from a Master of Library and Information Science degree to online arts courses like Music Theory and Dance Appreciation. Rowan offers bachelor’s degrees in nursing and liberal studies, master’s degrees in business and education, and New Jersey teaching certifications in areas like special education. At Burlington County College, courses this spring range from Principals of Management to Business Law to Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, offering students already enrolled in the college an alternative to classroom-based courses.

While such classes often attract independent learners, Regan-Butts notes that online students aren’t on their own. The classes are often hybrids of Internet-based instruction and one-on-one communication with a professor. Some classes may involve collaborative projects and group discussions, while others are designed to be completed on one’s own schedule. And while many choose online programs to fit their schedules, e-learners must be just as disciplined as traditional students, often even more so. Typically, they’re juggling work and family responsibilities while taking classes. “There is still a work ethic involved,” Regan-Butts says. Those who procrastinate “instead of working on assignments are going to fall behind.”

Technology has made e-learning an even more attractive option that more closely simulates a classroom environment. Rowan uses an interactive “blackboard system” that has video and audio components. “When you log on, you actually hear the professor’s voice,” Regan-Butts says.

At Drexel Online, which has been offering e-learning degrees since 1996, many of the 90 programs now have components that work with portable electronic devices, like iPads and smart phones. “Keeping up with technology is the key to engaging adult learners,” says academic director Dr. Ken­neth Hartman. He notes that colleges must consider the changing needs of working adults when developing online curricula.

With the explosion in popularity of e-learning, numerous online-only schools have entered the market. There are, how­ever, many advantages to staying local when learning online. “Because we are a bricks-and-mortar institution, our online students can use our library and other facilities, and can meet face-to-face with their professor when they need to,” Regan-Butts says.

Rutgers researcher Heather McKay, who has worked extensively on online education systems, including projects funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, believes e-learning could be the key to lowering unemployment. “Adult learners have a variety of family and personal responsibilities that make fulfillment of their requirements on-site difficult,” McKay says. “Some encounter difficulties with transportation or child care arrangements.... Certainly, financial considerations can be problematic. While not cheap, taking courses online can be less expensive than attending a college in person.”

Yet, some worry that there may be a stigma attached to online degrees. Beverly Baskin, a New Jersey-based professional résumé writer and career counselor, says that’s why the most important thing is to choose a reputable, accredited school. Then, she adds, job seekers should consider the pro­spective employer when deciding whe­th­er to highlight their online college experience.

“It is very subjective,” Baskin says. “If an online school is known for a specialty, it makes a good impression if a client has taken a degree in that specialty. However, so many colleges and graduate schools have online subsidiaries, your résumé does not have to reflect that the coursework was done online.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 1 (January, 2011).