Overcoming adversity with online degrees

Tonyetta Jackson is the ambitious type.

The 28-year-old is constantly trying to move up in the world. She has been promoted at her job since she first started as a part-time worker at the state Department of Natural Resources while still a student at Tara High School.

A few years later, Jackson was juggling her job and her schoolwork while she was a student at Southern University pursuing a biology degree.

But life situations caught up to her and she had to abandon her plans. With a new baby to care for, she dropped out of Southern and started working full time.

“I had a little baby and there were not a lot of night classes being offered in biology,” Jackson said, explaining that she next enrolled for a short stint at Baton Rouge Community College before leaving to work full time.

Jackson is just the type of student the University of Louisiana system is looking for in its foray into the online degree business. The nine-school network of universities — the largest in the state — has been actively courting so-called nontraditional students for more than a year.

The goal is to get adults who started college but didn’t finish into one of the organizational leadership degree programs each of the system’s universities is offering.

The UL system estimates there are more than 600,000 students like Jackson in Louisiana — adults who completed some college credits but not enough to earn a degree.

It ’s a story that’s familiar to UL System President Sandra Woodley. She often tells the story of being a young woman “who made a lot of wrong decisions.”

Woodley was married at age 18 and had two children in her 20s. It took her 10 years to finish her baccalaureate degree, making her the first person in her family to finish college.

Now as a top-level administrator, Woodley has emerged as one of the leading voices in the state for nontraditional students.

“Having been a nontraditional undergraduate student, I know firsthand that life can get in the way of college completion goals,” she’s said. “With the flexibility of this degree and the wide variety of specialization options, we have tried to remove all barriers to earning that diploma.”

Students pursuing a degree have their choice of nine programs offered collaboratively across institutions including the University of New Orleans, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond and Louisiana Tech University in Ruston.

The degree programs consist of 30 credit hours of core classes taught jointly by faculty at all nine universities in the UL System. The remaining 30 credit hours of concentration courses and electives are offered at each institution.

Courses are offered in five eight-week terms each year with a flat $325 per credit hour fee totaling $19,500 over two years.

Beatrice Baldwin, the UL System’s vice president of research and performance assessment, has called the program costs competitive, as similar online programs often cost students in excess of $500 per credit hour.

Students enrolling in one of the UL System’s programs are eligible for financial aid, Baldwin said.

When Jackson first learned about the online degree program, “I got excited because it was 100 percent online and the cost was affordable,” she said. “When I read about it, I said, ‘This is really talking to me.’ I had about 100 hours, but still no degree.”

Today, Jackson spends her nights working on her laptop completing her weekly assignments. She’s abandoned her plans to do biology lab work or to conduct coastal research.

After working in various departments at her job, Jackson said she’s found her right job working in purchasing.

“I figured getting a background in accounting was the right thing for me,” she said.

So far, she’s completed two eight-week sessions on her way to a financial services degree from the University of Louisiana at Monroe. She’s done that without leaving her home in Baton Rouge.

“If I go to summer school, I should be done in 2015,” Jackson said. “I want that bachelor’s degree because I want to be able to go for a higher-level position.”

Students who enroll in the organizational leadership degree program can choose from the following concentrations:

Cultural and arts institutions at the University of New Orleans.

Disaster relief management at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Financial services at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

Food service strategies and operations at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux.

Health and wellness at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Human relations at Grambling State University.

Project team leadership at Louisiana Tech University.

Public safety administration at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.

Strategic global communication at McNeese State University in Lake Charles.

Visit ulsystem.net or call (225) 342-6950 for more information.