Education: The Great Equalizer
When you ask Dr. Millicent Thomas about the current landscape of education and accessibility, she pauses for just a moment. Then, she unleashes an array of thoughts that detail how students who were once underrepresented in the sphere of academia, now have opportunities to earn a degree that didn’t exist decades ago.
Women, as well as students from diverse backgrounds, now have the chance to go to college. It’s an opportunity that didn’t always exist, Dr. Thomas says. But when universities started opening campuses in locations that were close to where students work and live, and when they began offering classes online, things changed significantly. Students who work and have families no longer had to rely on a traditional campus that sometimes meant they had to move away to earn a degree and get ahead in life.
“Having more than one modality increases accessibility for students seeking entry,” says Dr. Thomas, an instructor and faculty development administrator at the University of Phoenix Houston Campus.
Dr. Thomas’ expertise comes through her studies and career at the college level. Her Ph.D. work focused on social foundations, including student populations and the issues that students face from orientation to graduation. She is currently writing a book about women in higher education and exploring accessibility to education.
Students who come to University of Phoenix and the many other institutions offering flexibility in education are the very men and women looking for a better opportunity at work, she says.
In her courses, Dr. Thomas sees students who are 35 to 45 years old. Some haven’t been in college in five or more years and they are trying to figure out how to be a student again, while they continue working full time.
Dr. Thomas says that things changed when University of Phoenix opened, and schools like it quickly followed suit.
“Prior to the opening of University of Phoenix in 1976, students only had one outlet and that was to go to a traditional school,” she notes. Students tell her they couldn’t go to college without the options of attending class at night or online. Many students are parents who rely on family or friends to take care of their children while attending class.
The opportunity to go to college simply wasn’t always there for many segments of the population, Dr. Thomas asserts. Today, students can go into any degree program they want. She says many of her students are taking fundamental courses on their way to earning a degree in business.
Overcoming Obstacles Through Online Learning
Houston is a city populated by many cultures, and they all have one thing in common: the American dream—to get an education and a better job, or to simply live in a better neighborhood. Ultimately, University of Phoenix students want more—from themselves and their lives.
They come to University of Phoenix get more out of their educational experience, because the University provides the opportunities they need, Dr. Thomas says. “It’s very interesting to me the hurdles that these women and young men go through to get an education. And they weather every storm. They weather every single storm to get ahead.
“You know there are more women in higher education now than ever before. A lot of those women are single-parent heads of household, a lot of them are grandparents, and now they are back in school. And there’s no stopping them.”
Online education presents an equalizer for women who seek a degree and the same opportunities that men have, Dr. Thomas states. Beginning in the 1960s, a growing number of women started enrolling in college. But this number increased even more dramatically with the expansion of online education in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And it continues today.
Dr. Thomas says the opportunities are now endless due to online learning. Students can earn a degree while networking with people in their own city, and they can reach out to students in other states and across the globe. These networks of people from different ethnicities and socio-economic statuses can transcend geographic boundaries and create economic, political and professional ties.
“The only limits are based on each individual’s imagination,” Dr. Thomas says. “If you can think on a larger and broader scale, maintain the skills and tools learned from University of Phoenix, you can live, and do, and be on a larger scale.
“The opportunities are endless. This is the American dream.”
This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.