Penn State World Campus shares grant to expand educational access

June 28, 2012

The Learning First project aims to help more adults attain a college degree in less time where they live by bringing together online institutions and community colleges

Penn State's World Campus is one of five partners in a new venture to help underserved and low-income adults earn a college degree. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $450,000 to the Learning First project, led by the League for Innovation in the Community College and partners: Penn State World Campus, University of Massachusetts Online, University of Illinois-Springfield and Coastline Community College.

The purpose of the grant is to explore the creation of a student pipeline from California Community Colleges to online providers like World Campus to reduce the problem of not enough classroom seats for students. It's also intended to facilitate completion by low-income students by providing better access to education while also addressing the challenge of rising tuition.

"Higher education today is being asked to do more for students with fewer resources," said Wayne Smutz, executive director of Penn State World Campus and associate vice president for Academic Outreach. "Online learning can help solve this challenge by putting students first — enabling them to earn a college degree in their community, with additional online courses. To do this, we need to engage institutions already doing online learning in a big way with institutions that have no more capacity for serving students."

This is the mission of Learning First, which grew out of meetings hosted by the Gates Foundation in the spring of 2011 with leading online institution representatives who were asked to identify solutions to boost college degree attainment for more Americans, especially underserved and low-income individuals.

One of those meetings produced the "students first" concept, which focuses on helping current and potential college students, including adults, access existing online degree programs, rather than focusing on getting more higher education institutions to offer online programs. Representatives from the Gates Foundation liked that idea and encouraged the group of online learning leaders to form collaborative relationships to pursue the concept.

During the first phase of Learning First, the partners will explore the creation of models to link community colleges and online providers of bachelor's degrees and establish agreements between participating institutions for transfer of credits for degree completion.

Penn State World Campus specializes in adult online education, delivering more than 80 of Penn State's most highly regarded graduate, undergraduate and professional education programs through convenient online formats. World Campus is part of Penn State Outreach, which serves more than 5 million people each year, in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, all 50 states and more than 100 countries worldwide.

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Last Updated June 28, 2012