Virtual Path to Diversity

Despite reports of "digital divide," some colleges report notable progress in attracting minority students through online programs.
February 12, 2008

Which college in Maryland has the largest enrollment of black students? The flagship University of Maryland at College Park? The University of Maryland-Baltimore County, which is known for its success at educating black scientists? One of the state's historically black colleges?

When it comes to numbers of black students, those institutions don't come close to the University of Maryland University College, which is primarily online. Of its 90,000 students, 32 percent are black. And while many colleges have black graduation rates that lag their share of the student body, UMUC black students receive 30 percent of degrees from the university. The university has some notable advantages in recruiting a diverse student body -- decades of work with the U.S. military, for example. But the fact that the university is educating and graduating so many black students was cited Monday at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education as an example of how online education can improve access for minority or low-income populations.

And attendees also heard the results of surveys suggesting that historically black colleges may increasingly see online education as an important part of their strategies.

Speakers said that the examples and data discussed suggested a role for online education that hasn't been the subject of much focus: expanding diversity. "Online education can be a very powerful tool to reach different populations," said Bruce R. Magid, dean of the business school at Brandeis University.

At UMUC, the population of black students includes a large percentage with some previous college education, but without a bachelor's degree, said Susan Aldridge, the president. Their experience suggests that there may be significant numbers of black people who could complete bachelor's programs without starting from scratch, if provided with the right flexibility, which typically includes online education, she said.

Most of the black students -- like most of UMUC's other students as well -- are holding down jobs and can only consider educational programs that can fit into tight schedules. The students aren't necessarily looking for online programs, and sign up for the in-person courses that UMUC offers, but typically use a "mix and match approach" in which they rely on online education to get the required credits. "This is about giving access to students so they can take care of their work schedules," Aldridge said.

While these students have jobs, Aldridge said that the university was also trying to reach a more disadvantaged population through new scholarships for unemployed people, and was raising money to create a fund to provide laptops for them. Most of these students are gravitating to certificate programs, not degree programs, at least at first, Aldridge said. A bachelor's program can be "daunting," she said.

While Maryland has had success with black students, Magid said that in a previous position at San Jose State University, he was involved in an effort to give laptops to Latinas, who were able to do university-level work but for a variety of reasons were hesitant to enroll in on-campus programs. Not only did they succeed, but in some cases, parents started using the laptops to take courses.

Magid is also co-chair of a commission on online learning, set up by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. That panel in November released data on how presidents of NASULGC institutions see distance education, but on Monday, he presented some comparisons of how the land grant presidents' attitudes compare to the presidents of historically black colleges (a group with which there is some overlap).

What the study found was that black college presidents are more likely than NASULGC presidents as a whole to consider distance education to be crucial to their long term strategies (84 percent to 68 percent) and more likely to have identified distance education as a crucial area in their strategic plans (52 percent to 41 percent). These data follow on a report from Howard University researchers finding that increasing numbers of historically black colleges are offering distance courses.

Melvin Johnson, president of Tennessee State University, a historically black institution, said that his institution has gained enrollments through participation in a statewide consortium of universities offering courses online. Tennessee State is in Nashville and has seen its online enrollments include more people from rural areas and more white students than typically enroll in its offerings.

Johnson said that in discussions with his fellow black college presidents, he hears many say that online education is consistent with traditional values of their institutions. "Access is a critical need and they want to reach students left out of the loop traditionally," he said.

At the same time, Johnson said that resources are an issue. "Many of these institutions are resource-limited universities," he said. The challenge is getting the funds to use the "unique opportunity" the colleges may have online, he said.


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