At the risk of stating the obvious, obtaining a higher education is important. A college degree of some sort is now one of the prerequisites for almost any employment and increases the lifetime earning potential of the holder. We live in a hyper-connected world where anything that doesn't absolutely require in-person attention can, is, or will be outsourced to countries like China, India, and Brazil, where, what author Thomas Friedman calls a "glut of genius," makes it cheaper to do just about anything. For these reasons, more and more adults are returning to college to complete their degrees at programs like the University of Wisconsin's Flexible Degree Program and the University of South Carolina's Palmetto College.
Palmetto, and its new "Back to Carolina" program, are a conglomeration of online offerings from across the South Carolina college system that are built on one guiding principle – affordability. What is this new model for online learning that Palmetto represents and how might it affect the future of higher education?
Who is it For?
Focusing on those students who have already taken 60 hours of college credits and would like to complete a four-year degree, this program aims to open up access to a segment of the SC population that would not otherwise have the ability to complete a degree. Ideally, the program is intended to meet the needs of students in areas where there are two-year institutions, but where access to a school offering four-year degrees is not available. The online nature of the program provides these learners with a way of completing a four year degree without physically attending a four year degree granting institution.
Students wishing to take advantage of the program must already have 60 hours of college credits because, as vice provost Lacy Ford stated, "During those first two years, students build some of the skills they need to build face-to-face — mature to the point they can handle this a little bit better" (Columbia South Carolina Republic, 14 Sept. 2012). This requirement is one of the distinctive elements that sets this program apart from many others. Essentially, this is a hybrid program split into two large, coherent sections rather than a course or semester-level integration.
What Will It Offer?
While the program is being piloted in the fall of 2012, a broader slate of offerings is not planned until the fall of 2013. Starting then, the college will offer degree completion programs in business, criminal justice, elementary education, nursing, and organizational leadership. All of these offerings are linked to existing two-year programs. They are strictly intended to help students complete a degree that has already been started and to offer the more advanced bachelor's rather than the associate's that students already may have attained. According to the program information, the degree options will be available to those from other states as well.
The cost of the program is linked to the cost of attending one of the regional partner colleges. For example, in the first semester, fall of 2012, full-time SC resident students pay $4,487 per semester for tuition and a required technology fee. Students taking fewer than 12 credits pay $375 per credit hour (Columbia South Carolina Republic, 14 Sept. 2012). This cost, while not exceptionally low, is in line with the costs that students would already be accustomed to from their work at regional campuses, as the price for Palmetto courses are based on the fees established for the on-ground programs.
Implications for Higher Education
This innovative plan for helping residents of the state earn their college degrees represents a very real step forward toward helping adult learners achieve their educational goals. While there are over 3,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., many of those are not four year, degree granting institutions. Many students simply do not have the opportunity to attend an institution that would provide them with a BA or BS – credentials that are increasingly necessary for obtaining skilled positions in the workforce.
Although more mainstream, for-profit online education is a possibility for almost everyone, it may not be a comfortable choice for many. A program such as Palmetto, however, provides a certain degree of comfort and security with completing a degree through an institution that students are already a part of.
This feels like a completely natural extension of the community college system. In the study of human performance in graduate school, we were taught that many of the most seemingly daunting problems that people face can be overcome by simplifying the process that is presenting the obstacle. Palmetto College and the Back to Carolina program do exactly that by making the transition from a two year degree to a four year one as seamless and painless as possible. This really represents a model that every state should be considering as a way of helping keep students in the higher education pipeline and ultimately broadening and enhancing the workforce throughout the country.