No place like home to earn college degree

June 19, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

During the day, Jacqueline A. Westfall balanced the books for a potash mining company in Carlsbad, N.M.

At night, she settled in front of the television in her Carlsbad living room to go to college.

Last month, Ms. Westfall, 36, was awarded a bachelor's degree in businesses management from the University of Maryland. She is one of 10 students in states from Hawaii to Connecticut who received similar degrees.

They made up the nation's first class to complete a bachelor's degree electronically, according to a spokeswoman for the University of Maryland University College, which granted the degrees. UMUC is one of 10 universities in a national consortium formed to make higher education more accessible through use of technology such as cable TV.

"The nice thing was it was flexible," Ms. Westfall said of her televised college education, which fit her life as the mother of three teen-age sons active in sports and rodeo. "You don't have to mess with commuting and all that stuff."

More and more students like Ms. Westfall are deciding there's no place like home for taking college classes. They are taking courses beamed over Mind Extension University, a cable network founded in 1987 that is connected to an estimated 25.6 million homes.

"This really represents an opportunity for people who find that time and distance have prevented them from continuing their learning," said Andrew F. Holdgate, vice president for communications at Colorado-based Mind Extension, which is owned by Jones International Inc.

"They've really embraced the electronic campus," he said.

About 5,000 students are enrolled in the network's courses, which are taught by professors from 25 colleges.

The degrees are awarded by one of the 10 universities in the consortium. For example, students have completed master's degrees in business administration from Colorado State University and are working toward bachelor's degrees in agriculture at Kansas State University.

The televised format was a nice fit for University College, which gears its courses to working adults both in Maryland and on campuses in Asia, Europe and South America.

"This program allows them to complete their degree programs with UMUC, even if they move to other parts of the U.S.," said Paul Hamlin, dean of undergraduate programs at University College.

The courses are upper-division, meaning they are open to students who have already earned two years worth of college credit. To be admitted, a person must have been in good standing at another college and have completed a "good deal" of course work, Dr. Hamlin said.

University College offers only the businesses management bachelor's degree, charging in-state tuition of $507 for a three-credit course or $552 out of state. Everybody has to pay a $25 voice-mail fee.

Cable TV isn't a necessity. For a fee of up to $30, the college will mail videotapes of the classes.

Students order their books by mail. When assignments are due, they can send their papers by computer using electronic mail, send them by fax, or use regular mail, including a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Graduates had the option of participating in commencement ceremonies at College Park. But they all chose to have their degrees mailed, said Lissa Brown, the University College spokeswoman.

One of the graduates was Tim Kauffman, who grew up in Rockville and dropped out of the University of Maryland College Park years ago. "I just got fed up with school," said Mr. Kauffman, 30, who has been tending bar in Irvine, Calif. "I had to travel a bit. I ended up in California. I just decided last year that I wanted to finish up."

He took 10 videotaped courses over two years. He

communicated with professors and other students over voice mail. The professor would pose a question on the voice-mail tape and students would call with answers and listen to those of their far-flung classmates.

"If you're dedicated enough to apply yourself and go at your pace, it really works out for you," said Mr. Kauffman, who is BTC waiting to hear if he's been accepted at law school.

Mr. Kauffman had to persuade a few skeptical friends that this was serious education.

"They thought I had heard about this on the back of a matchbook cover," Mr. Kauffman said. "Until I explained it to them, they didn't know I was getting a bachelor's degree just like they were."

Kate Lowe of Melbourne, Fla., read about the televised college in an article in Better Homes and Gardens magazine and decided it was a nice fit for her busy life rearing a young daughter and working full time.

Some of her teachers were excellent, Ms. Lowe said, regularly updating the 800 call-in line with thought-provoking questions.

"Other teachers didn't put as much effort into it as I thought they should," said Ms. Lowe, 46.

While she said the experience was generally a good one, "I miss the classroom interaction a lot. You're kind of on your own."

Ms. Westfall felt the same isolation in Carlsbad, particularly during exams, which she took at a local college proctored by a professor.

"I was always by myself," she said. "I was the only student in Carlsbad that I know of taking the courses."

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