Cardinal Cadence Spring/Summer 2012


Online student working at a laptopLamar University a leader in learning
University adds six new online degree programs

New construction and renovation have transformed the face of Lamar University and contribute greatly to the university’s continued enrollment growth. Less visible, but perhaps even more significant to Lamar’s growth, is the university’s leadership in online education. Distance learning is one of the fastest-growing aspects of higher education in the U.S., significantly outpacing traditional enrollment growth. That fact is evident at Lamar, where 30 percent of Lamar’s credit hours are now generated through online courses and nearly 4,200 of Lamar’s current students never set foot on campus.

Continued growth in online programs is critical to the university’s survival. Lamar faces unique geographic and demographic challenges that impact enrollment. Demographic projections from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board show a continued slow decline in the traditional college-age population in Southeast Texas. Geography is little help. Traditionally regional universities like Lamar draw the vast majority of their students from a 200-mile radius. For Lamar, a great deal of that circle falls in the Gulf of Mexico or across the state line. And while there are more than 6 million residents in the greater Houston area, so, too, is a plethora of educational institutions. Offering students educational opportunities that fit into their busy lives has proved beneficial to Lamar.

The birth of a leader

These challenges are why LU administrators were receptive to new ideas presented by LU alumnus Randy Best in 2006. An exceptional entrepreneur, Best was convinced that he could deliver higher education to Texas teachers more effectively through innovative technology, but he needed to partner with a university that could provide the highest quality instruction. Lamar’s NCATE-accredited teacher education programs were soon paired with new delivery methods. LU’s College of Education and Human Development surmounted significant challenges as it broke new ground in higher education through its partnership with then Higher Ed Holdings (now Academic Partnerships). When Lamar launched the online master’s programs in October 2007, it lowered the cost of earning these degrees for thousands of teachers. The program was praised for its quality and success after strenuous examination by NCATE, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Online enrollments zoomed to nearly 4,000 from all across Texas before leveling out at around 3,000. Lamar has awarded 5,854 M.Ed. diplomas through the online program that has become a model for many other universities.

Lamar broke new ground again with the creation of its online doctoral degree in education in July 2011. “To enroll 50 students three times a year, that was unheard of in doctoral programs,” said Paula Nichols, executive director of distance learning. “We were the first to make it happen.” The program compliments the university’s successful on-campus Ed.D. program that enrolls about 65 students and has more than 60 graduates to date.

When it comes to higher education, “geography has almost become incidential,” Nichols said. “College is coming to your living room and to your mobile device.” And, the conversations have changed as well. “The question used to be, ‘can you do that online?’ Now, the question is, ‘how do we do it well online?’”

Whether it is online or on campus, students are realizing a quality education from Lamar University. “Online serves our own students,” she said, “and we see that reflected in the fact that 44.4 percent of our students are taking courses online.” In fact, 14.5 percent of our on-campus students are also taking at least one online course. They find that online courses offer a flexibility that meets their schedule.

LU continues to add new programs

The university is working now to add significantly to its online offerings, bringing six new programs to students this fall. Four of these programs share the previously developed common core of courses. Lamar is launching a Bachelor of Science in communication, a Bachelor of Business Administration in general business, a B.B.A. in management and a B.B.A. in entrepreneurship, as well as a Master of Public Administration in criminal justice, and a certificate in English as a second language.

Increasing online offerings expands Lamar’s ability to deliver quality education to underserved populations. “The reality is that 60 to 70 percent of our population cannot afford to quit work for a residential college experience,” Nichols said. “So online programs provide them access to higher education.” Online programs also address the needs of nontraditional students.

“The model of living on campus and pursuing a graduate or undergraduate degree is great,” Nichols said. “But it isn’t possible for everyone. We want to create opportunities and assist in the expansion of our educated work force.”

Taking classes online helps lower transportation expenses and helps students continue working. “Many of our students work full-time jobs and struggle to balance classes and commuting. Taking one or two online courses helps them be fulltime students. That is important in terms of financial aid and graduation rates.”

“The other big group that online serves are the 36- to 50-year-olds who might have gone to college but didn’t finish,” Nichols said. “They went to work, and now they’re hitting the glass ceiling and want to finish their degrees. They can’t pack up and go; they’re employed; they have family responsibilities. Our programs fit this niche very well.”

The university is working hard to offer additional programs that will meet the needs of both traditional students and the millions more for whom a traditional college experience is not feasible. That includes the 3.5 million Texans who have some college credits earned but have no degree and for whom Lamar’s online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree could be an excellent fit. “The B.A.A.S. has proven to be our most popular completion degree,” Nichols said. “We are able to tailor the program to suit our students’ professional needs.”

Providing online learning isn’t just about providing curriculum. It also means effectively meeting the needs of students who will never set foot on campus. “We are increasing our emphasis on services for students who are not physically on our campus,” Nichols said, “it is a mindset that provides 24/7 service for all our students. LU is at the forefront of change by providing more access that fits the needs of all students, on campus and online.”

“Lamar is really the best of both worlds for those students who have some reluctance to enroll in a totally online university or feel restricted by a university that doesn’t offer online programs. The quality of our faculty — and the research, scholarship and creative work they do — is reflected in the quality of the online programs we offer.”

“The balance between a strong campus program and a strong online program is the best strategy for meeting the needs of all students,” Nichols said.

Best online innovation

An entrepreneur’s entrepreneur, Randy Best‚ ’67 began his business career while a student at Lamar University where he started seven businesses and at one point had 42 other LU students in his employ. Among his ventures were publishing companies and Collegiate Diamond, an endeavor selling engagement rings at a time when “about 28 percent of all college students got engaged or married each year.” At 25, Best sold the company for around $10 million and has gone on to found or acquire more than 100 privately or publicly held companies in a broad range of fields including healthcare, defense and aerospace, publishing, agriculture, food, oil and gas, real estate and education.

When he moved into the second half of his career, Best focused on business initiatives with a social mission that could have an enduring, positive impact. This commitment resulted in a focus on education and in the welfare of children.

Best’s own challenges with dyslexia made him passionate about reading and its critical impact on a student’s education and life. He founded a national initiative that annually helps more than 3 million children, mostly inner-city, learn to read.

In 2005, Best turned to higher education and founded a company to help state universities increase access for underserved high-need populations. Lamar University was the first to partner with Best in delivering two graduate education programs, growing enrollment from 226 to more than 4,100. He also founded an international higher education company focused on bringing a high-quality, low-cost college education to students in the developing countries of Latin America. Today, Academic Partnerships delivers online programs in all 50 states and 37 foreign countries.

by Brian Sattler

May 2012