For three years, Whitney Hicks had a routine, including raising her son, working full-time and taking online courses toward a Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice at the University of North Georgia. Her days were filled with tending to her son in the morning and at night, accomplishing her tasks at work and at home and carving out study time during lunch and after her son’s bedtime.
“He was usually asleep by 8:30-9 p.m. and I worked on additional reading assignments until about 11:30 p.m. or midnight,” Hicks said. “Then I repeated this process.”
On weekends, a similar routine followed with Hicks scheduling time for her son and her assignments.
“It was a hectic process and required a great deal of dedication,” she said. “I was committed to providing the best life possible for him.”
Hicks’ story is not unique. In the digital age, millions of students are logging on for educational advancement. According to Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education Statistics, of the nearly 2.94 million graduate students, 26.1 percent were enrolled exclusively in online courses in fall 2015. One year later, it increased to 27.5 percent of the 2.97 million graduate students.
The jump in online enrollment has led higher education institutions to increase their online graduate degree programs, including UNG. Dr. Luisa Diaz-Kope, coordinator of the Master in Public Administration (MPA) program at UNG, can attest to that.
The assistant professor of political science and international affairs explained the MPA program’s student enrollment nearly quadrupled when the degree program went online. In fall 2018, those numbers doubled compared to fall 2017.
“Since we went online, we are more diverse in age, race and ethnicity, because enrollment is not limited by geography,” Diaz-Kope said, noting her students range in age from fresh out of college to 50-year-olds in the workforce.
“The more research I did, I saw the UNG program aligned with my professional goals,” he said. “And the UNG folks were very easy to work with.”
A second-year graduate student, Lauren Billet is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Fresh from earning her bachelor’s degree at UNG, Billet enrolled in the MAIA program to take advantage of the opportunities UNG offered to its students.
“I wanted to have a second chance at being a student, so I could take advantage of the fellowship, internship, and study abroad opportunities that I didn’t take advantage of as an undergrad,” the 23-year-old from Columbus, Georgia, said.
At present, UNG offers 14 degree and six certificate programs online.
Graduate degrees include:
Doctorate of Education with a major in higher education leadership and practice (Ed. D)
Master of Arts in International Affairs (MAIA)
Master of Education in Middle Grades Math and Science (M.Ed.)
Master of Public Administration (MPA)
Master of Science with a major in criminal justice (M.S.)
Master of Science with a major in kinesiology
Master of Science with a major in nursing education (MSNE)
Two bachelor’s degree programs are available online: the Registered Nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and General Studies. The Associate of Science and Associate of Arts degrees are also available online with pathways into general studies, political science, social work, and sociology.
Graduate student enrollment jumped by 24 percent in online programs from fall 2015 to fall 2017. Melinda Maxwell, director of graduate admissions, expects graduate degree program enrollment to grow.
“Employers are seeking people with advanced degrees,” Maxwell said.
Jane Brooks Rosser, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Cobb County, agreed. She explained the only way to advance in education is with a master’s degree.
“I looked into many programs in the field of education, but nothing interested me,” Rosser said. “I found the MAIA program and knew that it linked to what I teach.”
Once she earns the degree — she’s scheduled to graduate in May 2019 — she would be eligible to receive a bump in pay.
That is not the only benefit. Online degrees help students who have full-time jobs, families and other obligations, Maxwell said.
Bill Bush, who is enrolled in his fourth semester of the MPA program, said the program is ideal for him. He works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and occasionally travels for his job with Adventures in Missions in Gainesville, Georgia.
“I have the freedom to read and write when it is convenient for me. I don’t have to be in a class from 6:30-9:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday,” he said.
Others said the program’s flexibility is the only way they could earn an advanced degree.
As mothers with full-time jobs, Rosser and Hicks admitted they could not have achieved a higher degree in a traditional class. Rosser said she works on her homework in the mornings before her seventh-graders arrive.
“I was right in the middle of the semester when my wife and I had to move from Fort Bliss, Texas, to Fort Drum, New York,” he said. “The fact that I could get to a hotel, stop and login was beneficial.”
All of the graduate students say they remain connected to their fellow students and professors through discussion boards and email. Bush said he interacts with his online classmates.
“We can go to the discussion boards and type a response,” he said.
With all of the positive benefits, it is not surprising that UNG is ranked in the top 20 of the best online schools in Georgia, according to The Best Schools website. The organization provides in-depth rankings of degree programs as well as of colleges and universities across many different schools and programs. In its online college rankings, BestSchools.org balances academic excellence, return on investment and indirect or secondary benefits in evaluating schools or programs.