More HBCUs Offer Online Degrees

Historically black colleges and universities are going online, but some top schools aren't plugging in.

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As degree seekers continue to flood the online education market—online headcount is estimated to have grown 18 percent in 2010 alone according to market researcher Eduventures—many historically black colleges and universities are hoping to capitalize on the surge. As of fall 2010, 19 of the 89 HBCUs with four-year undergraduate programs offered full online degrees at the bachelor's or master's levels. That's up from 12 in 2006, according to a study by Roy L. Beasley, academic systems analyst at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University.

[See U.S. News's HBCU rankings.] 

Some HBCUs say they're just using 21st century technology to meet their historic mission of educating disadvantaged and remote Americans. But Beasley says they're also following the money: "Financial pressure is causing private HBCUs to now take a second look [at online education] and I think that's a good thing," he says. "Private HBCUs had [previously] shown very limited interest in nontraditional students." 

[Read about other challenges facing HBCUs.] 

Hampton University, in Hampton, Va., started offering online graduate degrees a decade ago, and has since expanded its online reach. The school now offers an array of bachelor's and master's programs ranging from business management to nursing, but Cassandra Herring, dean of Hampton's College of Education and Continuing Studies, maintains that the school didn't broaden its reach to nontraditional students for the sake of the bottom line. "We've been able to extend the campus, so to speak, so that individuals who are not able to study on the main campus still have access to our academic programs," she says. "Profit was not the motivation. It was really to serve this group of folks who we were not serving." 

As proof Hampton wasn't interested in maximizing profits, Herring notes that the school relies on its professors to develop the courses with the aid of the school's in-house online education team, which has put in place an online bookstore and offers online tutoring services. Tapping full-time professors and creating an online infrastructure is costlier than outsourcing the program, but ultimately more beneficial to students, argues Herring. Unlike Hampton, other private HBCUs have opted to outsource the online program's infrastructure to outside firms in recent years. Companies like Education Online Services Corp. have recently established relationships with private HBCUs like Virginia University in Lynchburg, Va., and Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., to develop their online programs at a lower cost than they could have on their own. 

[Consider these five tips before you pursue an online degree.] 

While the private HBCU sector may have financial incentive to start a potentially lucrative online program, most of the HBCU online programs are housed at larger state universities. In fact, 12 of the 20 largest HBCUs (in enrollment terms) offer some form of online degree according to Beasley's study. However, among the top 20 HBCUs with the highest graduation rates—a strong indicator of an institution's academic quality—only seven have adopted a full online degree program. 

[Learn more about online education.] 

Among the top schools who aren't even considering offering online degrees is Atlanta's all-female Spelman College, which boasts the highest graduation rate—83 percent—among all HBCUs, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. "The mission of Spelman College is focused on developing the intellectual, ethical, and leadership potential of our students. We believe that we can do that best in the context of a residential campus experience where students can engage in a variety of meaningful learning opportunities with faculty, staff and each other, in and out of the classroom," Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum said in a written statement to U.S. News. "While we encourage the use of technology and support faculty in their use of the web and other technology-based teaching tools, an online degree program is not desired at this time because it falls outside of our current strategic focus."