A Non-Traditional Student: My Experience as an Online College Student

By Elizabeth Quinn

Elizabeth Quinn is one of the new generation of adult online learners, who have earned their college degree over the Web.  After suffering financial and personal setbacks as a college-bound teen, she later mustered up the resolve and the resources to go back to college at age 41.  After earning her college degree, she now makes a living as a freelance writer.  This is her story:

As a teenager I dreamed of a college degree, but my family’s difficult financial circumstances and my mother’s death when I was seventeen ended my college dreams.  Little did I know I would one day earn my degree as an adult student.  At age forty-one, I became an online college student and joined thousands of non-traditional (adult) students earning their degrees in a decidedly non-traditional way. 

I chose the online route because I was taking care of my handicapped grandmother and I couldn’t leave her alone.  I first considered a distance learning degree in 1985, when I learned about Regents College, a program run by the state of New York (Regents has since become Excelsior College).  I also learned about Charter Oak State College run by the state of Connecticut and Thomas Edison State College run by the state of New Jersey.  At the time, credits at Regents could be earned through examination, correspondence courses from other schools, or classroom work at other schools.  I seriously considered earning credits through examination, but no financial aid was then available for most distance learning and I couldn’t afford to pay for the exams. 

Which College to Choose?

In 2002, my life was finally at a place where I knew I could make an online degree work for me.  Three factors made Thomas Edison State College an easy choice.  First, I was impressed by the fact that Edison is a state-run college; I knew they were trustworthy, and not a diploma-mill. I wanted a degree from an accredited college; one that understood the problems of adult students. 

The other factors made the choice of Edison a cinch.  Edison is designed for adult learners.  Edison students can take full advantage of federal financial aid because several of their degrees can be completed entirely through courses offered by the school.  My finances were still meager.  I qualified for a full Pell grant, which covered most of my expenses at Edison.

Without the grant I could not have earned my degree.  I had decided against federal loans; my caregiving responsibilities made it difficult to know how I would repay a loan.

Getting Started Online

I was eager to start classes.  I had a little trepidation about my rusty academic skills, but I was confident in my ability to learn.  Too confident, it turned out; the first semester I found I couldn’t handle a full course load and take care of my grandmother as well.  I dropped a course about halfway through the term; unfortunately, I did not realize that this would reduce my financial aid.

Despite this setback, I was able to continue the next semester and this time I knew how to balance my time better.  I was also preparing to take an academic assessment of a non-credit course I had taken on writing for children; this involved preparing a portfolio of the work I had did for this course, along with a narrative of what I had learned.  This was challenging, but enjoyable; Edison assigned me mentor who was available to answer any of my questions about the process.  Edison allows this sort of portfolio assessment for many skills learned outside the classroom.

I also earned some credits through examination.  This gave me more flexibility with my time, but I found I learned more thoroughly with the classes than studying for an exam on my own.  Having to stick to a class schedule for my assignments was a helpful incentive.  The majority of my online classes where ones in which you sent your assignments to the professor by e-mail, but did not participate in a discussion.  I did take some courses that were an online classroom experience; I enjoyed the interaction of discussing the topics in the asynchronous chat room.

I also took advantage of Edison’s unique E-pack courses.  These are twelve weeks in length, but have the flexibility of having no assignments.  I studied and passed Statistics, and Introduction to Counseling this way.  I read the textbooks and answered online quizzes for each chapter to assess my learning.  At the end of the term, I was ready to take the exams.

I majored in psychology and in history.  I love history and I knew psychology would help me in any field I might eventually choose.  I was thrilled with my online learning experience.  The flexibility was exactly what I needed; my grandmother was able to come with me to the library when I took my exams and she enjoyed watching the videos that were part of some courses.  Edison bills itself as a school for “Adults with Higher Expectations.”  The name is appropriate.  I am proud of my online degree.  Thanks to the great courses at Edison, I feel well-prepared to continue graduate studies and I am earning my living as a freelance writer, something I could not do effectively without my degree.   

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