The northern Wisconsin landscape doesn’t seem to change all that much, at least compared to many other parts of the world. Instead of tall buildings piercing the sky and bright lights washing out the stars, trees tower over the roads and lakes shimmer in the moonlight. Life moves at a slower pace here, and that’s the way many people like it.
But even though this area has a timeless quality, change has come to the Northwoods and its residents in many forms. Not the least of these is increased access to high speed Internet service. It has revolutionized many aspects of everyday life, among them how people gain information and how they conduct business.
Significantly, it’s also revolutionizing how people here and around the globe are getting their educations. Where obtaining a bachelor’s degree was once an achievement reserved for those who could put their lives on hold for a few years while attending college, the Internet has made obtaining a college degree within easier reach of more people than ever.
Easier access to a bachelor’s degree has far-reaching implications, both for prospective students and employers. With UW-Superior offering several bachelor’s degrees online, residents of all ages in this area now have increased opportunities to further their educations.
“Most of the time, for distance learning programs, we have students who started someplace else,” says Dan Kuzlik, outreach specialist for UW-Superior. Many students who opt for distance learning already have some college credits under their belts, but for various reasons-like accepting a job offer, getting married or raising kids, for ex-ample they didn’t complete their degrees. “They’re here and may want to get a degree, but don’t have the resources to pick up and leave,” Kuzlik says. Now, “they can be in their communities and they can earn bachelor’s degrees. That kind of flexibility in their lives really gives them an advantage.”
For employers, wider access to college degrees means a larger number of people in the labor pool here could gain more of the qualifications needed to fill key positions. The biggest problem for this area’s manufacturing sector, Kuzlik notes, is recruiting qualified employees, not just in technical fields, but also for management positions.
Formerly the head of Oneida County UW-Extension, Kuzlik recalls that when that agency held community forums, the desire among local business leaders for access to four-year degrees was a subject that came up often. “I worked with a lot of business people who were concerned about brain drain.”
It’s a concern that is very real. As members of the aging population, including the managerial workforce, retire, those employees will need to be replaced. But as Kuzlik points out, a lot of students who leave this area to go to college like the opportunities they find in other communities and don’t return here after they graduate. As a result, it can be difficult for businesses here to attract qualified, educated employees with critical thinking skills. Easier access to four-year degrees could well be a means of stemming the flow of young people from this area.
In addition, “People who have degrees earn more money and they are able to get better jobs,” Kuzlik says. Not only does that make a person less likely to leave the area, but higher paying jobs provide more discretionary income, always a plus for economies on the local level and beyond.
A college degree is preferred or required for many different jobs. In recent years, news reports have described a dismal job outlook for college grads. But according to a report on cnbc.com in April of this year, that outlook could be improving. The report stated that employers anticipate hiring 10 percent more college grads from the class of 2012 than they did from the college class of 2011, according to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
In addition, more employers’ perceptions of online degrees are changing. Once dismissed out of hand as being of lower caliber than degrees from brick and mortar universities, online degrees from accredited institutions are becoming increasingly accepted by prospective employers, according to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management. Recognition is growing that the students who earn online degrees must, by necessity, possess the very qualities employers seek: self-motivation, a strong sense of commitment and the ability to manage time effectively while juggling multiple roles. What’s more, to qualify for accreditation, online programs are required to measure up to the same academic standards as their brick and mortar counterparts.
Some critics point to the fact that students participating in online courses are only in contact online. They don’t meet in a classroom and interact face-to-face with each other or with professors and therefore don’t experience the personal connections that are part of college life. Kuzlik, however, doesn’t see this as a drawback. “They’ve really shown they’ve done some quality education. You can actually deliver high-quality education online and even though students are not in a classroom, you form almost a virtual classroom with your cohorts. You’re still learning from each other.”
Currently, more than 500 students are enrolled in UW-Superior’s distance learning program. Online offerings include bachelor’s degrees in communicating arts, elementary education, sustainable management, health and wellness management, and interdisciplinary studies. “That’s really popular with students who have bounced around a lot,” he says of the latter, because it allows them to design their own majors. Possible UW-Superior online offerings in the future, he adds, could include master’s degrees in education and sustainable management.
It all adds up to an unprecedented array of opportunities, both for students of all ages and backgrounds, and the companies that need to attract qualifi ed employees.
“As an educational consumer,” Kuzlik says, “you can shop. The lines are disappearing. Things are changed a little bit now.” Without a doubt, they’re going to change even more.
For more information, log on to uwsuper.edu/distancelearning.