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I am a nontraditional undergraduate student at Columbia, and I am proud to be labeled as such because Columbia is not a traditional university—it is an exceptional one. Withinthe Ivy League, it is the only university with an undergraduate college created with the sole purpose of meeting the needs of nontraditional students: the School of General Studies.   

Nobody can deny that GS is an example to follow when it comes to inclusion within the Ivy League. Students from different age groups and different ways of life learning from each other enriches Columbia’s classroom experience. Nevertheless, could Columbia become even more inclusive? Could it become inclusive according to the standards of public institutions, where the returning student, the single mother, and the full-time employee, are not exceptions?

Purdue University,the leading public university in the state of Indiana, announced on April 27 its acquisition of Kaplan University, a major online learning organization. According to the announcement on the Purdue University website, “The initiative is meant to address ... the need for postsecondary education for ... [those] unsuited to traditional campus study, and the explosive growth of online technologies ... [for] education.” I often wonder what prevents Columbia from taking inclusive education to the next level. What is holding GS back from providing online education to its students?

Some may argue that this initiative is not a good fit for a university such as Columbia, because part of the experience of obtaining a world-class education is to be able to meet face-to-face with renowned instructors. I have to admit, Columbia has provided me with an unmatchable experience as a nontraditional student.

During my first semester at Columbia, I took a class taught by the highly regarded mathematician Dusa McDuff. Professor McDuff is a fellow of the Royal Society, a Noether lecturer, and the first mathematician to be awarded the Satter Prize in mathematics. Being exposed, in person, to a lecturer of her caliber would not have been possible at any other nontraditional college, and certainly not through a distance learning platform. However, Columbia could still offer its nontraditional students an alternative to attending live lectures by providing them online access if necessary.

For those who think that the quality of the education would be tarnished by an online learning alternative, think twice. I believe that a major reason that leading institutions have not made more use of this option in the past is that either the technology was not available or it was relatively new. In fact, many prominent universities today, including Columbia, offer massive open online courses through edX and Coursera. However, Columbia does not grant undergraduate credits for any of its MOOCs.

The fact that Columbia has the capacity to offer courses through edX and Coursera tells us that the University has the capacity to offer its nontraditional students the opportunity to learn via the web. Still, granting credits for online undergraduate courses might be an issue of obtaining the proper accreditation for them, and not an issue of their quality. In other words, the MOOCs’ platforms might lack the checks and balances that a live classroom setting offers, and it is likely that this is the reason that the University may not be willing to offer accreditation for MOOCs. However, this does not mean that the University lacks the ability to set the required checks and balances. The University can still offer online undergraduate courses independently instead of through edX and Coursera.

As a matter of fact, Columbia already offers fully accredited online degrees in-house, but at the graduate level. If, after obtaining my undergraduate degree in mathematics, I wished to obtain a Masters of Science in applied mathematics from Columbia, the University would allow me to earn this degree fully online. In fact, the school that offers the degree online—the School of Engineering and Applied Science—delivers it online only.

If I can take accredited graduate level math classes online at SEAS, then the University must have the capacity to offer accredited undergraduate level classes online too. Mathematics is a highly complex subject, therefore there should be no impediments to offering degrees that are as complex or less complex online for credit at the undergraduate level. Columbia is not the only university offering competitive graduate courses online for engineering and the applied sciences. The University of California, Los Angeles also has a similar offering through its online engineering program.

Nevertheless, Columbia could become the first Ivy League institution to offer accredited online courses at the undergraduate level as it continues to pioneer the way in inclusive world-class education through GS. Purdue University President Mitch Daniels stated the following when announcing the acquisition of Kaplan University: “Nearly 150 years ago, Purdue proudly accepted the land-grant mission to expand higher education beyond the wealthy and the elites of society.”  As a student at Columbia and GS, I know that both the University at large and GS stand for similar principles.

Columbia and GS have sought to reach out to the non-elites of society—myself included—to provide us with an elite education. As part of the nontraditional student body, I know there are some of us who start this journey but are not able to finish it. Not necessarily because we do not have the will, the strength, the heart, or the intelligence, but because life can bring complexities that force us out of our programs. I believe that we can make the support system even stronger for nontraditional students at Columbia by incorporating accredited online classes into our programs so that more of us can complete our degrees.

I ask the School of General Studies and Columbia University to consider the incorporation of accredited online courses as part of our undergraduate curriculum, to allow students who need to work full time and/or raise children to have enough flexibility to continue their studies and to graduate within a foreseeable timeline.

The author is a junior in the School of General Studies majoring in mathematics.

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