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N.H. college, university systems see enrollment increase for online classes

More New Hampshire students are turning to their computers for summer classes, mirroring a broader trend of increasing online enrollment in the state’s university and community college systems.

Summer online enrollment in the Community College System of New Hampshire is up 11 percent over last year, said Shannon Reid, spokeswoman for the system, which includes seven colleges. Earlier this week, Chancellor Ross Gittell announced that systemwide summer enrollment – both traditional and online – had increased 4 percent. The boon is the result of course offerings in high-demand fields and the increased availability of online courses.

While preliminary figures for fall 2014 online enrollment hint at significant increases, hard data won’t be in until the semester begins. Online degree programs have been embraced at different speeds by different schools, but for those colleges that have beefed up programming, staff and academic supports, an online degree is on par with a traditional one. Education leaders have also pushed for better access to college education in the past year, and online classes not only offer students flexibility timewise, but they also cut down on commutes.

“From an institutional perspective, it enables us to leverage technology and course offerings to extend our reach to additional students,” said Reid.

Nontraditional options

At NHTI in Concord, the number of students who are taking online classes this summer is up 22 percent, and overall online enrollment last year was up 18 percent. The college is expecting that interest to increase, said NHTI spokesman Alan Blake.

“It’s too early to say for this fall, but we expect continued double-digit growth,” he said in an email.

Students are also flocking to expanded online options through the University System of New Hampshire. More than 4,000 students are currently enrolled in degree programs offered entirely online, said Chancellor Todd Leach.

“We have experienced tremendous growth in online courses in recent years,” he said last week.

While Granite State College has long had the most robust online course catalog, programs at the University of New Hampshire and Plymouth State have grown, and soon, Keene State will also have access.

“I think it’s fair to say the university system fully expects pretty rapid online growth, and that Keene will be part of the online mix going forward,” said Leach.

About 74 percent of students enrolled in online degree programs in the university system are New Hampshire residents, he said.

Total enrollment at Granite State is up 30 percent, to almost 3,500 students. Sixty-percent of those students are enrolled in an online degree program, either taking a full course or working toward a degree a few courses at a time.

Leach, who was Granite State’s president before being named chancellor, said the online growth at the school can be credited to its history of educating nontraditional students.

“Perhaps Granite State is unusual because (while) some colleges have an arm that serves nontraditional students,” he said, “Granite State is focused on it.

“It is something that has allowed us to be ahead of the curve for online learning.”

In Manchester, Southern New Hampshire University has been nationally recognized for its online program, which reinvigorated the private nonprofit. Now, online enrollment trumps its traditional enrollment.

Staying with core mission

That is not the case at UNH, though its online enrollment continues to grow, even in the absence of a full-time online bachelor’s degree program.

“As part of our core mission, we see us as focusing on that residential undergraduate experience,” said Terri Winters, director of eUNH, the university’s online learning branch. “We have not put any undergraduate degree programs online.”

Still, eUNH offers more than 350 courses online, and the school has two online master’s programs: social work and business administration. The social work program, rolled out this year, has an expected enrollment next year of 25 students, up from 15 in its first year.

“Especially with the master’s programs, we are definitely seeing students we may not have otherwise,” she said.

The university launched online courses in 2009, mostly because of declining summer enrollment, said Winters.

“We were seeing students transferring credits from other places. We wanted to keep and recapture our own students, and that has really grown since 2009,” Winters said. Between 4,500 and 4,800 students will take a summer course at UNH this year, and about 2,300 of those students will study online, she said.

Addressing challenges

One of the challenges facing online degrees is a perception of lower standards, as for-profit online schools such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry Institute have been scrutinized on a national level. Having a skilled faculty and strong educational supports are the best ways to change the perception, Leach said.

“I think having a faculty that lives in both worlds helps ensures that students are getting the same product,” Leach said. “I think that’s harder to ensure if you don’t have faculty who are engaged in both traditional instruction and online.”

As an advocate for 22 public and private colleges in the state, the New Hampshire College and University Council routinely recruits students to study in New Hampshire, but most of those efforts have remained focused on the traditional student, said President and CEO Thomas Horgan.

At the council, “we’ve done very little around online recruiting,” Horgan said.

In addition to rising college costs and declining state and federal aid, Horgan said he sees the technology as the third-major challenge faced by higher education.

“As a sector, higher education needs to address those three waves that are crashing on the shore,” he said.

As the demand for affordable, accessible education increases, so too will an emphasis on online college.

“There does still remain an economic divide between people who can afford to go to college and those who can’t,” he said. “Lowering the cost and increasing the access are a big part of that, and we’re going to use technology to do that. What we haven’t figured out is how we’re going to use it.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)

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