Having given birth to her second child just two weeks ago, Ashley Roomsburg has had little time to pursue a college degree from behind a classroom desk.
She’s doing the same now as she pursues a degree in early childhood education from NCC.
But Roomsburg’s reliance on distance learning worked against her when it came to getting state aid.
The reason: Students who took the majority of courses online were barred from using state grants issued through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency for those classes.
As part of the budget process, the Legislature amended the state School Code to change that.
Starting this fall, degree-seeking students who take all their classes online can qualify for state aid.
Roomsburg couldn’t be happier.
“I will benefit from this greatly … considering most of my course load is online,” the busy mother said in an email.
The change comes seven years after the U.S. Department of Education modified its 50-percent rule to allow students to receive federal aid even if they are enrolled in a majority of online courses.
Pennsylvania’s reversal comes as distance learning has become a common component of the higher education experience.
The 2012 Survey of Online Learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group shows that more than 6.7 million students, nearly a third of total enrollment at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, took at least one online course during fall 2011.
“We believe this is going to be very beneficial for students who’d rather take courses online,” said Kenn Marshall, media relations manager for the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education, which runs the 14 state-owned schools.
“For those in a family position or who have a full-time job, it may be the only way they can do it,” he said.
Of the 484 degree programs offered from the 14 state-owned universities, more than 100 can be completed through distance education.
Kutztown University doesn’t offer any degree programs, but offers more than 50 online classes during the fall and spring semester. Its winter session is all online, and many summer courses can be taken online as well.
NCC offers about 20 associates degree programs online, including ones in business, criminal justice and secondary education.
From 2011 to spring 2013, about 40 percent of NCC’s students took online courses.
Doreen Fisher, distance education program director at NCC, welcomes the relaxed rules on grants for online courses.
“I value the face-to-face classroom,” Fisher said, “but technology has allowed those who can’t be there to still get an education.”
The change affects full- and half-time students who attend public and private institutions in Pennsylvania that offer two- and four-year academic degrees. That includes all 14 state-owned and the four state-supported schools.
However, Keith New, communications director of the PHEAA, said it is incumbent on schools to take it upon themselves to submit an application to PHEAA to be accepted as a qualifying institution.
At this point, New said, the PHEAA has no idea how many schools will apply or what impact the change will have on its resources.
For the 2013-2014 fiscal year, 157,000 students will receive an average of $3,120 in state aid, the maximum amount being $4,363.
For students, the criteria for obtaining state aid for online classes are the same as for traditional classroom courses. It’s based on income level of students and families. Students will not have to fill out an additional form.
For now, the change is being considered a pilot program and will last until 2018. At that time, it will be reassessed to evaluate how things are going.