Opinion & Editorial

New Online Degree Programs for Working Adults

To accommodate different types of students, particularly in the 21st century, it seems only natural that full-time online degree programs work their way into the fabric of higher education. Here at the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (CAPS) at Washington University in St. Louis, they have.

Associate Dean for Academics Pat Matthews helped devise two degree programs through CAPS that can be completed entirely online: the school’s associate’s degree, and a bachelor of science in integrated studies (BSIS). You can also choose hybrid-degree programs that incorporate a mix of online and in-person courses.

The associate’s degree allows students two years of generalized study that can help them determine where their interests lie. Plus, the associate’s degree also counts toward a bachelor’s degree. The BSIS program also allows students with a range of credits from WashU or other universities to count towards the degree, which can be used as the foundation to build upon specialized curriculum.

As an administrator at the top-ranked institution’s continuing education program, Matthews’ work connects her to students with a range of backgrounds and experiences: they may be working other full-time jobs, have children or have credits from other universities but didn’t complete a degree.

Matthews says the online programs also allow students to develop the kind of writing and critical-thinking skills demanded by contemporary employers. “There are some in-person classes where the entire hour can fly by if you’re not the kind of student who aggressively participates in discussions, or if you don’t get called on,” she notes. “With the online format, everyone participates. You can’t hide in a corner and disappear. There is also quite a bit of writing required, which is one of the most important things we have to be able to do well today. You need to learn how to write in a way that not only gets your ideas across but does it in a successful tone.”

Matthews achieved her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Iowa and then went on to teach at Florida State University, where she remained for eight years. She had just given birth to her first child and was pregnant with her second when she made the decision to move to St. Louis and pursue a degree in architecture at WashU. “I experienced what it’s like to try to go to school as an adult with other responsibilities, and how difficult that is,” she says. “Until you’re in that situation, you understand only in theory what’s going to be involved.”

The biggest challenge for her, she says, was how juggling a family and full-time education ate away at her time. “I remember being on summer break one day after that first year of school, and it was nice out, so I took my son to the park. I was pushing him in one of the swings, and I remember thinking, ‘This is so nice to just be able to stand here.’ We were just connecting without having to get something done.”

Matthews eventually decided to take time off of school and work to raise her two children, now ages 16 and 18—a decision she said made her uniquely suited to the work she’d eventually take on for CAPS. Deeply involved in her children’s schools, she met parents with all kinds of different professional and educational journeys, whom she never would have met had she stayed the course of the traditional academic path she’d been on.

Ten years later, she went back to work in her current professional trajectory as director of the Summer School, eventually moving up into her current role. “When I came back to CAPS, it was a really good fit, because I better understood what adults need,” she says.

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