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Growth in online graduate programs helps St. Bonaventure expand its academic footprint

Mar 26, 2021 |

 

Since spring 2016, the number of students in St. Bonaventure University’s fully online graduate programs has grown almost twelvefold, from 50 to 585 in 2021.

That growth has been vital at a challenging time for small, private institutions.

“I don’t think there’s any question that our success has exceeded our expectations,” said Dr. Michael Hoffman, associate provost and chief information officer. “It was critical for us to figure out a way for us to leverage our brand and all that we offer academically to students who we knew would never be able to physically come here.”

In 2012, with its traditional campus-based graduate programs struggling and limited growth potential for its weekend graduate program in suburban Buffalo, St. Bonaventure knew that one of the few paths to survival was virtual.

“We knew we were behind the 8-ball and the window was closing on getting into the extraordinarily dense online space,” said Dr. Joseph Zimmer, acting president of St. Bonaventure.

Led by the efforts of Dr. Pauline Hoffmann, associate professor and then dean of the Jandoli School of Communication, the university first offered fully online programs in 2013-2014 with two master’s programs in the Jandoli School: Strategic Leadership and Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC). At the time, both also existed as campus-based programs.

But the Technology Enhanced Learning Committee, charged with exploring viability in the online graduate marketplace, realized that more programs, driven by market demand, needed to be added to its academic portfolio to give the university a larger footprint in the online space.

“We knew we’d eventually have to enter the online world so we started planting the seeds in the early 2000s by encouraging faculty to teach undergraduate classes online during the summer, since most of our students couldn’t be here then,” said Hoffman, whose doctoral dissertation at Northeastern University focused on motivating faculty to participate in online higher education.

Growth was slow but steady and, with the addition of a fully online MBA program in 2017, St. Bonaventure had more than 100 online graduate students in spring 2017.

University leaders, however, knew there was more potential. Through a deliberate and thoughtful strategy, SBU began adding additional online master’s programs that market studies indicated had viability.

In the last five years, St. Bonaventure has added seven new fully online programs: Master of Business Administration, Master of Science in Cybersecurity, MSED in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, MSED in School Counseling, Master of Science in Business Analytics, and Master of Arts programs in Sports Journalism and Digital Journalism, each beginning this coming fall.

In 2020, the Strategic Leadership program was renamed Master of Arts in Leadership and the IMC program was reimagined and transitioned to Master of Arts in Communication.

“The most important thing was doing this in a measured way,” Hoffman said. “We took our time and did a significant amount of market analysis to determine which programs would be viable in such a competitive higher-ed landscape." 

The counseling programs have been the biggest success of SBU’s online initiative; the two programs account for more than half of the university’s online graduate students. Counseling has the largest enrollment of any degree program, graduate or undergraduate, at St. Bonaventure.

Going online has also widened the university’s geographic footprint: Only half of its online students come from New York. The rest come from 42 other states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Canada. 

With an average age of 31, the majority of SBU’s online students are working professionals, often with families, motivated by career advancement or a career change, as well as the prospect of increased earning potential.

For universities like St. Bonaventure, with a bedrock foundation of highly personalized education in a traditional classroom setting, stepping into the virtual classroom was a significant step outside of its comfort zone.

“Ultimately, the real heroes were the faculty who took a leap of faith and didn’t stand in the way of adapting to teaching in this new environment,” said Zimmer, who was also a member of that technology committee and eventually became provost and vice president for Academic Affairs.

Laura Klain, who will earn her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling this summer, said the faculty have gone above and beyond to create a meaningful classroom experience.

“St. Bonaventure has given me ample opportunity to form a community with my professors and peers,” said Klain, who lives in New Hampshire. “If I have a question or concern, I have a network of people whom I can reach out to and whom I trust. The professors are top-notch and I receive all of the individualized attention that I could ever want from a program, despite it being online.”

Like many people with established careers, Scott Russell knew the prospect of pursuing a graduate degree at a traditional campus setting didn’t mesh with having “a wife, four children and two dogs.” But 31 years removed from a college classroom, he knew that earning a master’s degree was the only path for advancement so he decided to pursue SBU’s master’s in Cybersecurity.

“I certainly could have done self-study and pursued a certification in one or more of the cybersecurity disciplines, but one of the components of education that I really value is interaction,” said Russell, a director of customer support for Panasas, a parallel file system technology company in Pittsburgh. “I learn more when I talk with other people and share experiences and the instructors at SBU have emphasized interaction.”

Even when he took a break for part of a semester, Russell said a student contacted him with ideas about a lab. That spirit of collaboration and interaction was shaped in his virtual classrooms.

“That's the type of experience I wanted – to learn and form professional relationships,” said Russell, who’s in his final year of study. “Education is what one makes of it. SBU provides and encourages interaction among students, even when opinions differ. I think that the educational experience I’ve received matched what I wanted.”

Attracted by its beauty and academic reputation, Cassandra Harris-Towner said she seriously considered attending St. Bonaventure as a senior in high school in 2000, but the university didn’t have the program she wanted.

“Imagine how excited I was 20 years later as I was researching online master’s programs when I found that not only did St. Bonaventure offer the program I was looking for (Clinical Mental Health Counseling), but that it was almost fully virtual and accredited,” said Harris-Towner, who now lives in Florida and teaches elementary school art.

Harris-Towner admitted she had some “misgivings before starting the program about how this could all work successfully in a fully remote fashion.” Those reservations quickly faded away.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the amount of interaction and support I’ve received from the faculty and staff,” she said. “My student success coach is always supportive, knowledgeable and timely while clearly enjoying what she does, and the faculty truly help to build a sense of community and connectivity.”

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About the University: The nation’s first Franciscan university, St. Bonaventure University is a community committed to transforming the lives of our students inside and outside the classroom, inspiring in them a lifelong commitment to service and citizenship. In 2020, St. Bonaventure was named the #2 regional university value in New York and #3 in the North by U.S. News and World Report.