By Kira Cordova
Program director Dr. Terry Schliesman, lead success advisor Eliza Ekstrom-Sullivan, and program student Meagan Becker discuss the ins-and-outs of Western’s fully asynchronous online Adult Degree Completion (ADC) program.
Dr. Terry Schliesman, who initially pitched and now directs the nascent 100% online and asynchronous Adult Degree Completion program, believes Western’s history providing higher education in-person shouldn’t preclude evolving into online offerings. Instead, he views that history as a launching point to serve a broader educational market — and more students.
“ADC is about Western’s commitment to Colorado, to its vitality and compassion for learning. While we have a rich history to be proud of, Western also has a stake in the future, and that’s another reason [why] ADC matters. We continue to evolve!” Schliesman exclaims.
The program’s flexible design is intended to help students overcome barriers presented by going back to school the traditional way: In-person and on-campus.
ADC students work full-time jobs, and many are raising families or caring for other dependents — among other schedule demands — rendering synchronous classes challenging to impossible.
Predominantly taught by Western faculty, ADC courses come at a more affordable price per credit, made possible by trimming the fees associated with traditional, on-campus learning.
For the 2023-2024 academic year, in-state ADC students will pay $364 per credit, while out-of-state students will pay $576.
ADC classes supplement students’ incoming transfer credits to help them complete a degree in one of two disciplines: Business Communication or General Studies, with a K-12 teaching license.
The ADC program is born
“The program launched in Fall of 2021 with [only] the Business Communication major and 5 or 6 students in 2021-2022,” says Schliesman, a Western professor of Communications Arts for more than two decades.
“The pandemic opened our minds to what’s possible with online education,” he adds. “I think COVID demonstrated that we can get on with education via programs like Canvas or Blackboard.”
Schliesman recognizes that not all online learning experiences stemming from the pandemic have been positive, but he believes the student investment and intentional design of quality online courses in ADC program mitigates the potential for negative experiences:
“With ADC, we don’t have those issues as the adult learners we work with can’t travel to Western or any other regional college or university because of full-time employment, so they’re jazzed and grateful for the chance to learn remotely.”
He emphasizes that the program is a testament to the power of collaboration, shouting out the tiny but mighty ADC team, which has worked collaboratively with more than 100 people at Western to make the Adult Completion Degree program happen.
What are the programs of study?
After launching the Business Communication major in Fall 2021, the initial plan was to launch the already pre-approved major in General Studies (GS) in 2024.
Then, the Education Department approached Schliesman and Eliza Ekstrom-Sullivan, the ADC Success Advisor, with a proposition: Enroll K-12 paraprofessionals (sometimes known as school aides or paras) in the GS program and couple it with the teaching licensure necessary to teach in Colorado, a program the education department already offers.
While the program is designed to meet the Colorado teaching licensure requirements, the education department can help facilitate out-of-state licensing and residencies on a case-by-case basis, as other states have different requirements to become first time teachers.
“When I graduated high school, I had the dream of being a teacher. Life got in the way of that dream until last spring. After a year of being a para, I felt that calling again, but in the special education world,” said Meagan Becker, a paraprofessional enrolled in the General Studies and teaching licensure program.
Becker, who grew up in Montana and started her degree at the University of Montana Western, has lived in Grand County in Colorado for almost 15 years. She’s now earning her Special Education Teaching Certificate through Western’s ADC program.
The original ADC business communication major is a 48-credit program that emphasizes organizational dynamics, public relations, and conflict resolution.
The new General Studies and Teacher Licensure pathway includes 49 credits and a student-teaching residency completed at a local school in the last year. The program meets all requirements for an initial teaching license in Colorado and the endorsement requirements (except for licensing exams) in one of the following areas of students’ choice:
- Elementary Education (K-6)
- Special Education (K-12)
Students may be eligible for licensure in the following areas if they’ve completed significant coursework in the discipline or can pass a Praxis subject test, designed to showcase mastery of content in various subjects:
- Math (7-12)
- Social Studies (7-12)
- English (7-12)
- Science (7-12)
- Music (K-12)
- Visual Arts (K-12)
- World Languages (K–12)
Both majors also include the option for a 12-credit Digital Marketing specialization.
According to the program’s website, “students who transfer in [with] 60 credits to start the program can finish in as little as 36-48 months if enrolled full-time.”
The recommended full-time credit load for ADC students is 6 credits per term, but the ADC program allows students the flexibility to build their course load around their busy lives.
How do people apply? What are the requirements?
In addition to the age and credit requirements (23+ having completed at least 24 credits at an accredited institution), students must also have maintained at least a 2.3 GPA the last time they were at college. If they recently attended Western, one calendar year must have passed between their admission to the ADC program and when they were last enrolled as a student.
Students also are required to provide their own computers and technology required for successful participation, although there are pathways available to utilize financial aid to offset costs.
Potential students can schedule a one-on-one consultation with ADC’s lead success advisor Eliza Ekstrom-Sullivan, who oversees ADC academic advising, recruitment, and outreach.
Ekstrom-Sullivan is Western alumna who returned to finish her degree as an adult student before the launch of ADC and can personally address any questions about the program, including funding opportunities. She can be reached at email@example.com.
What about financial aid?
Tuition rates are based on residency, but, regardless of whether or not ADC students live in Colorado, campus fees are excluded, so students pay a flat rate.
While ADC students aren’t typically eligible for Western merit or common scholarships due to their class load (which, at an average six to nine credits a semester, doesn’t meet the requirements to be considered full-time and also disqualifies out-of-state students from accessing WUE or CP tuition), the ADC program offers significant funding specifically for its students.
Those offerings include grants funded by the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (COSI), which “works to lower barriers to higher education and professional training by providing financial support and academic enrichment programs to Coloradans.”
To be eligible for COSI funding, prospective students must be Colorado residents, which means living in the state for a full calendar year before beginning school Back to Work grant recipients must have been displaced or otherwise adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, have Pell eligibility, and pursue a degree that is aligned with Colorado Top Jobs.
Finish What You Started recipients are required to have completed some college credits but not their degree, and to have been out of college for at least one full academic year. They must also have Pell eligibility.
And while out-of-state students don’t qualify for COSI funding, they may be eligible for the annual Legacy Scholarship, an award of up to $1500 for students enrolled in at least 15 credits a year who maintain at least a 2.75 cumulative GPA.
With this COSI funding and institutional funding from Western, Ekstrom-Sullivan says that the program has been able to offer almost 90% of ADC students scholarship funding over the course of the last two years through one of the avenues listed above.
Ekstrom-Sullivan and Becker also emphasize that, particularly for the GS and licensure students, there are a significant number of funding opportunities available.
“If you’re going back to school to become a teacher, there are so many scholarships and grants available,” explains Becker. “You just need to look online. I’ve found enough that I will most likely not have to pay anything out of pocket for my degree.”
One of those outside opportunities is the Educator Recruitment and Retention program, which offers up to $10,000 for students working as paraprofessionals who agree to work as a teacher in a qualifying district for three years after graduating. ADC advisors are available to help students gather application materials.
Students in the GS and K-12 licensure program can also apply for multiple scholarships through TEACH.org, and Ekstrom-Sullivan reminds students that there’s funding available for additional expenses like licensure exams, and to help offset the loss of paid working time for students during their student-teaching year.
Students don’t even have to apply for this assistance, the financial aid office can offer that funding to students based off of their FAFSA information.
Supporting ADC students
In addition to funding grants for students, COSI funding also supported the creation of the success advisor position in December 2021. Although the ADC team doesn’t interact with students face-to-face, they’re still supported by the ADC program through every step of the program.
This year, the program has been able to add a second ADC success advisor, English professor Jennifer Foster, and a peer coach, a returning ADC student who serves as counsel for current students.
Before each semester, the ADC advising team reviews each incoming student’s response to a needs assessment survey to understand how to best support them.
“It’s a short, 10-question survey that helps to give us a better idea of what students’ needs and goals are as they enter the program,” Ekstrom-Sullivan says. “It gives our incoming students a space to reflect on past challenges or experiences they encountered in college and [tell us] if they foresee any barriers or obstacles [that] they may face during their time in the ADC program.”
Incoming students also identify the skills they’d most like to obtain and are introduced to learning resources and support programs at Western like the Writing Center, Financial Aid, Disability Services, and mental health services like the Counseling Center.
Jaime McDonald, a Business Communication student in the ADC program who started her students with the program’s very first cohort in 2021, currently serves as the peer coach, connecting with other students informally to offer support and answer questions from a fellow student lens.
She will continue in that role next year as she finishes her degree. ADC student Taylor Hubbard, who lives in Colorado’s San Luis valley, will join the team as ADC’s second peer coach starting this fall.
Even with support and immense student drive, completing a degree as a busy adult with a full plate of responsibilities can prove challenging.
“I wished I knew just how many late nights it would mean,” says Becker, a mom of two, who remains excited about the prospect of advancing a career in special education.
The students of ADC
In its first several years, Schliesman says the program has “been a great example of how online education can solve a serious societal challenge [like] the K-12 teacher shortage, by connecting motivational learners, [the paraprofessionals across our state], with qualified, caring Western faculty … and then getting the hell out of the way and letting the education happen.”
The program also serves a more diverse group of students than Western’s current on-campus undergrads.
Among 74 students the program is tracking data for (61 of whom are currently enrolled or who will be enrolled this summer, with the remainder expressing serious interest), Ekstrom-Sullivan reports that 66.2% are women, and 31% identify non-white (as opposed to Western’s 19% minority enrollment on-campus).
The average age of that group is 38, with just over 65 college credits completed before entering the program.
And the program continues to grow. Two of the five students initially enrolled in the program in Fall 2021 graduated in Spring 2022. The ADC team estimates that between 15 and 17 students will graduate in Spring 2024.
What’s next for the program?
While the team can’t dish on the details of their most creative visions just yet, Schliesman confirms that the GS major won’t be the last addition to the program.
One area of potential expansion? Colorado’s blossoming nonprofit sector.
“We know there’s a need for coursework and experience in the area of non-profit leadership. In [the Gunnison] Valley alone, we have over 200 functioning nonprofits, and that’s a very different world than the public or private sector,” he expands.
“Over the summer, we plan to research two or three other possible certificates. On a long-term basis, I’d like to see 5-7 majors [and] minors offered, along with industry certificates through ADC,” says Schliesman, outlining the plan over the next three to five years. “I think we have the capacity to pull that off.”
With new offerings on the horizon and student numbers growing, the young and thriving ADC program is here to stay, getting adult students where they want to go.
Schliesman says his favorite part, as program director, “is connecting with students who, for years and years, have mentally beat themselves down for not completing their degree.”
“ADC gives them hope, inspiration, knowledge, confidence, and, to use the vernacular [term], moxie.”