Online Programs Fueling Vertical Enrollment Degree Growth

News Story: October 28, 2013

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but Sacred Heart University is one 50-year-old that just continues to embrace new technologies and practices that are leading to explosive enrollment growth in certain sectors. One very powerful magnet is SHU’s online program offerings, which now allow students to complete coursework and earn degrees entirely or almost entirely without entering a classroom.

SHU has been offering online classes for years, but it has required some portion of time to be spent meeting in person. In the nursing degree program, for instance, that was sometimes problematic as nurses have varying shifts around the clock, and it was difficult for them to commit to specific class sessions.

As a result, about three years ago, the University decided to move into the online space more strategically. The nursing degree program was a good place to start as nurses have been proven to be early adopters of technology. So, the RN to BSN program became a fully delivered online degree program.

The University has also gone from offering complete bachelor degree programs online to offering master’s degrees online. This has occurred in the nursing program sector and other majors like psychology. In both areas, students still retain the choice of pursuing their degrees completely online or in an online/on-the-ground blend.

The result? In just three years, the number of students pursuing degrees online through SHU has gone from a mere 30 to over 700.

“The University realizes that there is a shrinking student market in New England in the traditional 18-to 21-year-olds,” said Mary Lou DeRosa, SHU’s vice provost for Special Academic Programs and dean of the University College, who oversees the ESL, Upward Bound, Horizons and SHU online programs.

By offering select doctoral degree programs now, SHU is prospering rather than faltering in the changing landscape.

“Sacred Heart has evolved from being a sleepy commuter school 50 years ago, to a residential campus catering to traditional-aged students, to a provider of graduate and master’s degrees and now a provider of doctorate degrees in nursing, applied psychology and physical therapy,” DeRosa said. “Soon, we will offer doctorates in education and business. It’s a natural transition.”

Combine this fast-growth trajectory with a beautiful main Fairfield, Conn., campus, investment in infrastructure, Division I athletics, study abroad programs and globalization initiatives, and you have a dynamic learning community. “Alums who come back cannot believe what they see,” DeRosa remarked.

“‘Who will the 21st-century student be?’ Certainly returning students, students seeking certifications, people in health care professions and those in career transition,” DeRosa noted.

The trend to deliver programming entirely online is not devoid of challenges. Authentication of a student’s identification is an issue, along with how to make the technology engaging and how to build a community. SHUsquare is an online community for first-year seminar students and faculty to share ideas, work and resources. It is designed to enliven teaching and learning. It has enhanced communication between students and teachers and between students pursuing different disciplines that may have common threads.

“Teachers are still teaching, and students are still learning, just in a different way,” DeRosa observed. “We’re just not limited by physical classroom sizes anymore.”