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Niche market: Colleges vary in their approach to education

February 28, 2013
By IAN HICKS - For The Times Leader , Times Leader

WHEELING - Some local colleges and universities have abandoned a "one-size-fits-all" model when it comes to higher education, while West Virginia Northern Community College says it will continue to embrace that approach because it best fits its role in the community.

Brian Crawford, dean of West Liberty University's College of Liberal Arts, said the college's new direction toward individualizing a student's educational experience began about 50 years ago when West Liberty began opening up general studies options and offering more elective courses.

Although some programs, including health sciences, education and certain pre-professional offerings, must remain very structured due to accreditation or licensing requirements, Crawford said, students today have more flexibility than in generations past - particularly those in the university's interdisciplinary studies program, who are able to create their own course of study with the help and approval of a faculty committee.

"When a student comes to us with a desire to accomplish a particular educational goal, we work to help them find the best path toward that end," Crawford said.

WLU may be finding a niche with its budding physician assistant program, which began in June and will move to the new Campbell Hall of Life Sciences later this year. Its inaugural class of 17 will graduate in 2014, and almost 600 have applied to be a part of its next class, according to Allen Bedashi, program director.

At Bethany College, officials say "one size fits all" has never been part of the mission since its founding more than 170 years ago.

"Our students have always been encouraged to engage in thoughtful, reflective learning as individuals-to pursue intellectual freedom. Today it remains vitally important for students to have options, to find an environment where they can thrive, enjoy the adventure of learning and pursue their goals, but also personalize their educational experience as much as possible," said Bethany spokeswoman Rebecca Rose. "That approach recommends Bethany College to students seeking life-defining leadership roles."

Although the realities of the career marketplace make some degree of specialization a part of its various academic fields, Bethany believes combining that with its longstanding tradition of a broad, liberal arts education provides its students the best formula for future success.

"Our educational market niche is that of the residential, liberal arts campus - the only institution in West Virginia ranked as a top-tier, national liberal arts college," Rose said.

Meanwhile, West Virginia Northern Community College - with campuses in Wheeling, Weirton and New Martinsville - said the "one-size-fits-all" model is one that defines community colleges, and one that best allows the school to help the greatest number of students find their path to a career or further their education.

"Open access, preparing students for the workplace or college transfer, and being responsive to the community will always be our primary goals," said Vicki Riley, WVNCC's vice president of academic affairs.

Riley said strategies used to achieve those goals have changed and will continue to do so - for example, WVNCC has made obtaining an education more convenient by expanding self-paced, accelerated and online offerings, as well as "hybrid" courses that combine live lectures with web-based course work.

Offering classes for casino dealers after voters legalized table gambling in 2007 and a recent focus on welding, mechatronics and other courses relevant to the energy industry as natural gas drilling has taken off are examples of ways in which WVNCC strives to be responsive to the communities needs, administrators said.



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