It hasn’t always been easy for an adult student to get a degree. This is something Jim Morrison, long-time College of Liberal Studies employee and instructor, knows well.
CLS’s financial analysis and planning specialist first came to the college as a master’s student after taking a nontraditional path to his education. After dropping out of high school as a teenager, he earned his diploma by way of correspondence courses. After graduation, he accepted a full-time position at Exxon Oil Company and enrolled in night classes to begin work toward his bachelor’s degree.
“Back then, the only way to get your degree and work full time was to go to night school and attend classes that were just like a traditional class,” he said. “The administrators and the tenured faculty felt—and many still do—that the only way to really get an education was to come to campus and live in a dorm, go to class during the day, and do your homework at night. That was the traditional model, and traditional night school was four hours per night, four nights per week to earn 12 hours. For many people at that time, there was no alternative method of earning a degree.”
Morrison worked steadily toward his degree, knowing he would one day need it. Like so many other adult students, however, life got in the way before he could finish. It was the 1960s and he received the order to report for his physical during the Vietnam War. Although he was never called up, he put his education on hold to concentrate on his full-time job after completing 30 hours of college credit.
Getting back to work
As the years passed, Morrison worked as a business manager, pastor, and farmhand throughout the Midwest. It was later in life, when Morrison accepted a position as a business manager at Mid-America Christian University, that he got a second chance at completing his degree. The university began offering a program enabling employees to attend school one night a week for two years to work toward degree completion. He jumped at the opportunity to resume his education.
“I was the first student to sign up for it because I knew it was the only way I could get a degree and work full time,” he said. “I was in my 50s by then.”
Once again, Morrison dove into the role of the nontraditional student. After completing his bachelor’s degree through the program with Mid-America, Morrison decided to start on his master’s degree right away.
“I realized that if I was going to do a master’s I would need to go right into it. If I had waited six weeks I wouldn’t have been able to do it!”
A degree at the College of Liberal Studies
“At the time, the College of Liberal Studies graduate program was comprised of a two-week seminar in the summer, two weeks in January, and another two weeks in the summer for a total of nine hours. Then you did independent studies,” he said. “The courses were basically correspondence courses back then, and you did them with a specific professor, so I could work full time while completing the courses and a thesis. I said, ‘that’s the way you ought to do it!’
“I had outstanding and interesting professors who had years of service at the university,” Morrison remembered. “The work was academically rigorous, but at the same time they understood that I was an adult student who just didn’t have as much time as a student who lived on campus.”
Morrison completed his studies at CLS with research on creative and critical thinking. Shortly after graduation, he learned CLS was looking for a new assistant to the director for graduate programs, and he knew he was the man for the job. While in the position, he returned to traditional night school, spending four hours per night, two to four nights per week on campus, to work on doctoral studies in Distance Education.
Creating access by going online
It was after Morrison joined the college that Dean George Henderson began thinking about delivering CLS courses online. In the mid-1990s, CLS was struggling to maintain student enrollments with the independent study model. Transitioning to online courses, and eventually to online degrees, allowed the college to draw on an instructor base from all over the world and helped CLS courses and degrees quickly adapt to evolving industry standards and techniques. It also made the college more accessible to a larger number of working adults.
“The whole idea of degree completion in adult education has evolved,” Morrison said. “And adult higher education and degree completion programs have evolved to meet the demands of the students. There are all sorts of reasons that people drop out or stop educational programs. Most people have had a sickness in the family, financial exigency, wars... all sorts of things interrupt their education and, until recently, they didn’t have access or alternatives. Online learning helped us give them another option.”
Finding enjoyment through teaching
After the introduction of online courses, enrollments at the college grew rapidly. Today, Morrison is one of more than 100 adjunct instructors at the College of Liberal Studies, and he is one of the most highly rated teachers the college employs. He uses his own experience as a nontraditional student to help him on his way.
Recently, Morrison went back to school, completing another 24 hours of graduate studies in Accounting and Legal Studies, fully online. “To make a long story short, almost every kind of nontraditional education method of delivery, I’ve done it as a student,” he said. “I’ve taught more than 600 sections of compressed and online education with four different institutions and I’ve worked with five different learning management systems. When I have a student who has a problem and is having trouble, I can really empathize with them because I’ve been down that road. I maybe have more empathy with students than some folks do just because my path has been similar.”
Morrison has taught dozens of courses for the college over the years, and he says he loves the caliber of student he sees coming to CLS. He recognizes that adult students have their own experiences and abilities, and he loves seeing those unique qualities come into play in the classroom.
“That’s another thing that happens when you’re teaching adults,” he said. “You get some people who are top notch intellectually and business-wise. My favorite course to teach is Nonprofit Management, and when we originally built it we wanted the course-spanning task to include building a business plan for a nonprofit that the student would like to create. What’s their dream? I’ve had some amazing plans come out of it that I hoped they would go on and develop. And I’ve had some students who have put those plans into amazing presentations that are more professional than anything I’ve ever done. That’s the enjoyment I get out of it.”