A shrinking world has created a stronger demand for nontraditional education.
As the world shrunk, thanks to the internet and lightning-quick digital communication, education has constantly evolved to meet different demands. For Texas Tech University, once those changes began, the only logical thing to do was adapt as the future quickly arrived.
Now, with the third decade of a new millennium on the horizon, Texas Tech has climbed onto a perch as an international leader in distance and online learning.
As of the spring 2019 semester, Texas Tech's programs for distance and online learning have expanded to include 16 undergraduate degrees, 32 master's degrees and 11 doctoral degrees. Besides the main campus in Lubbock, Texas Tech also supports seven regional sites in Texas and an international campus in Costa Rica.
As Texas Tech experiences unprecedented growth in enrollment numbers and prestige, the distance and online programs are playing a huge role.
"Online and distance education programs are vital for place-bound individuals," said Melanie Hart, vice provost for eLearning & Academic Partnerships. "Post-traditional students (older than 24 years of age) often have families and jobs that do not allow them to relocate to Lubbock to obtain a degree from Texas Tech. The regional sites and online offerings allow individuals to obtain an affordable, high-quality degree from a Carnegie Tier 1 university. We believe it is important to allow these individuals this opportunity."
Added Patrick Hughes, vice provost for University Programs and Student Success, "The experience of being a student is not as traditional as it used to be. Students tend to swirl and take courses at a lot of institutions. Students have changed, and we need to keep pace with that. However, students want to learn, we need to make the content available. The way we have grown with distance learning and online learning is consistent with the president's strategic play – 'From here, it's possible.' We have an excellent educational product and great brand recognition, so it's our responsibility that students who fall into these different and growing categories understand this education is attainable wherever they are."
That Texas Tech has embraced a leading role in distance and online learning is in part the result of the main campus' location, blended with the appeal to so many Texans – especially native West Texans – of achieving a degree from the university.
With a smile, Hart said she speaks to hundreds of students and graduates who "just love being able to graduate with that Double T on their diploma."
Twenty-plus years ago, Texas Tech offered traditional correspondence courses that were designed for students to work toward a degree. But it was the advent of widespread internet access that accelerated the process to the point where students can now complete all or most of their coursework online wherever it suits them.
Hart provided data that shows that in 2013, the total online presence for Texas Tech was 68,266 semester credit hours (SCHs). Numbers generated during the 2018 academic year show that number has ballooned to 180,797 SCHs.
Online learning capability, as well as the remote campuses where students can take courses, have allowed the Texas Tech brand to become more pervasive.
"Our experience has been that we have lots of fantastic students who don't live in Lubbock that we can reach with distance and online learning programs," said Andrea McCourt, program director for the Human Resource Development program in University Studies. "We have a lot of students who might hesitate to consider a Texas Tech degree if we didn't offer distance and online degrees, so this is a fabulous service we are able to provide."
While there is no specific target audience for distance and online education, the common thread connecting that growing faction of students is that they are nontraditional. The residual and welcome effect is that some subgroups of students have benefited the most: First-generation students, transfer students, older students and students in the military, deployed stateside or overseas.
"It has been important to create what we have and continue to grow it because so many of our new students will be coming from the post-traditional student cohort," Hughes said. "The numbers of first-generation students and transfer students in this cohort are increasing, so it's absolutely vital to future enrollment to make as many opportunities available as we can."
That is particularly important to students in the military or recently discharged, and Texas Tech is constantly adapting to serve that contingent. Hughes said a strong relationship with military students is part of the university mission.
"Once we started seeing growth in that cohort, we wanted to do whatever we could to meet the need, especially when the government started incentivizing those students to return to school," Hughes said. "We have worked to more effectively interpret military experience in terms of how we blend that with the education they want to receive from us. They represent a new kind of student because of how much more advanced military training has become."
Texas Tech's intent to adapt to how and what students with a military connection need is emblematic of goals that have changed and increased since the late 1990s, when distance and online learning became a focal point.
Like many other initiatives Texas Tech has embraced in its history, the commitment to distance, and online learning has yielded amazing results:
- Texas Tech was ranked No. 1 on the lists of the Best Online Colleges in Texas for 2018 by bestcolleges.com and onlinecolleges.com.
- Texas Tech earned a 2018-19 Top 10 Military Friendly School designation from Victory Media and G.I. Jobs, and was the first institution in Texas and third in the nation designated as a Purple Heart University.
- Students who reside outside of Texas are currently charged a rate comparable to in-state tuition when they enroll solely in Texas Tech online courses.
"We are proud of the delivery model we have established at Texas Tech," Hughes said. "A student who wants a Texas Tech degree can earn it in just about any way imaginable."