A Higher Degree of Online Learning

A Higher Degree of Online Learning

Northcentral University specializes in graduate education

By Kimberly Hundley
Photography by Mark Susan

When Jannine Wilmouth earned her master’s degree in public health and disaster management, she went the traditional route at Benedictine University in Illinois, lugging books and trekking to lecture halls. A few years later when she began looking into a doctorate to further her career in emergency management, Wilmoth discovered only a handful of schools had programs specializing in homeland security. Like it or not, she would have to enroll in an online university.

Today, more than one year into her studies at Northcentral University—which employs 300 support staff in the Scottsdale Airpark—Wilmouth has found the experience to be rewarding and educational, much to her relief.

“I never took an online class before I started with NCU. I had my fingers crossed. I was just hoping I would do OK with it.” says Wilmouth, who works as emergency services coordinator for the city of Glendale. “I started in June 2012 and just finished up my fifth class, and I love it. It’s hard work—a lot of work, a lot of writing. But I’ve really enjoyed all my instructors and everyone I’ve come in contact with, my academic advisor, my mentor—everyone.”

In recent years, distance education has soared in popularity as a more affordable and convenient option for students of all stripes. NCU is one of several online universities offering degrees that students can achieve without ever visiting a brick-and-mortar campus. Founded in 1996 in Prescott, the regionally accredited university has grown by leaps and bounds. Northcentral University moved into its current location at 8667 E. Hartford Dr. in April 2011, initially leasing 26,750 square feet of office space, then doubling the size of its center last December.

Unlike most of its competitors, NCU mainly attracts working professionals who already have one degree and are seeking a doctorate or master’s, though the school also offers undergraduate degrees. In fact, 95 percent of the student body are graduate students; 75 percent of whom are completing their doctoral degree.

“We’re primarily a doctorate-granting institution—something that is pretty unique in the online world,” says Scott Burrus, Ph.D., NCU provost and chief academic officer. “Because of that, all of our faculty have doctoral degrees, even if they teach an undergraduate course. It provides the highest-possible level in terms of academic expertise … resulting in learning outcomes that are deeply informed but personally meaningful.”

One-on-One Instruction

Also setting NCU apart is what Burrus describes as a “one-to-one” teaching model. Typically in an online class, there will be 20 or more students, with much of the academic interaction dependent on classmates—whether it be discussion forums or group projects. “And while that has merit, we believe at the graduate level, it’s most important for students to have direct access to faculty, and that they tailor [coursework] to their environment,” explains Burrus.

For example, teachers in rural settings would apply educational theories differently than would instructors in urban areas. At NCU, a single faculty member, known as a mentor, is assigned to each student per course and then works individually with that person via email, phone, Skype, phone and other tools provided in a virtual classroom. The mentor very much keeps the student’s unique professional setting in mind.

When Wilmouth was researching which online university to choose, NCU’s class setup most captured her attention. “The recruiting person said it was more like a golf lesson, and I was fascinated,” she says. “A lot of online courses are group settings, but at NCU, you write papers, you submit them, and they provide individualized feedback, which I love.”

Wilmouth adds that she’s also able to take the research she’s done for her course and apply it to her job on a daily basis. Among her work duties is preparing the city of Glendale to respond to any kind of catastrophic disaster. Because her coursework includes researching the homeland security concepts employed by other cities and states, she’s able to incorporate their experiences into training development for her own department.

New, Growing, Popular

Of Northcentral’s four schools, the largest is the School of Business and Technology, followed by the School of Education. A doctorate of education ranks as NCU’s most popular program, according to Burrus.

One of the fastest-growing programs, however, is in the School of Marriage and Family Sciences, which earlier this year became the first and only school to offer a distance-based master of arts in marriage and family therapy approved by the leading accreditation body in that field.

Another recent NCU coup is approval from the Arizona State Board of Education for a “3+1” bachelor’s degree in education in partnership with Maricopa County’s Rio Salado Community College. “It’s quite unique,” says Cindy Guillaume, Ed.D., dean of the School of Education. “We might be the only ones in the nation at this point [to offer it].” The partnership allows students to earn a degree that leads to initial teacher licensure, without having to attend an expensive state university. Rio Salado, which can’t grant bachelor degrees as it’s a community college, provides field experience and most of the classes, while NCU furnishes the rest of the instruction needed for graduation. The two schools collaborate on finding placement and securing supervision. “Students can do three years of coursework at Rio Salado prices,” Guillaume says.

What to Expect

An online doctorate degree can take more than five years to earn, and the process is neither easy nor inexpensive. A doctorate in business administration at NCU, for instance, can cost upwards of $44,000; while a master’s in entrepreurship is estimated at $20,630. A link on the NCU website providing a tuition comparison with the competing online universities Capella and Walden shows that NCU is the least costly.

“A component of our mission is to offer an accessible education. We don’t limit ourselves to ‘only 20 spots,’ for instance,” says Burrus. “We want to give anybody who has the desire, willingness and skill the opportunity to earn a degree, and part of that is having [tuition] be reasonable.”

More than three-quarters of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities in the United States now offer online classes, but the value of e-instruction is met with some skepticism, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey. Only 50 percent of four-year public university presidents believe “a course taken online provides the same value as a class taken in person.”

While some may be suspicious of digital learning vs. traditional instruction, Airpark resident Kristen Swisher believes doctorate programs are ideally suited to online universities. Swisher, an NCU student about to enter the dissertation process for a Ph.D. in advanced accounting, says by the time a student seeks an upper-level degree, they have internal motivation and a solid base of knowledge.

“At the Ph.D. level, you already know the concepts, and most of the work is research based,” she says, adding required research for the degree would be conducted online regardless.

Swisher herself teaches for several online schools and is seeking a doctorate to help her advance to a full-time teaching position. “I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything,” she says of NCU’s virtual classroom. “I have a 2 year old and a 9 year old, and I work from home, so I don’t have time to go to a brick-and-mortar school anyway.”

Burrus agrees that NCU’s teaching model is well suited for students who are accomplished self-starters. Since NCU only admits those with master’s degrees to its doctoral programs, the average student is by definition a go-getter.

The faculty at NCU focuses on helping degree candidates through the arduous process of completing the work, the research, and the writing of their dissertations. “They are already experts in their fields,” Burrus says of the students. “Most of them need research methods, expertise … the tools to inform their own field.”

NCU has around 120 full-time and 450 part-time faculty, with 52 members sharing in the dissertation part of the programs. All the instructors work remotely, an arrangement that allows NCU the flexibility to seek out the best of the best, according to Guillaume. “We’ve recruited from some of the most prestigious universities in the world,” she says.

Approximately 9,000 students worldwide are currently enrolled at NCU.

Corporate Culture

NCU’s faculty members may be scattered across the United States and several corners of the world, but nearly the entire support staff can be found at the school’s Scottsdale Airpark offices, fielding incoming calls from prospective and existing students on admissions, enrollment and academic advising. Overseeing this workforce and keeper of NCU’s corporate culture is Eric Stoddard, senior vice president of Enrollment and Student Services.

“If there is one thing I can do here that makes the biggest difference, it’s making sure people think it’s a great place to work—because that transfers through to the students,” says Stoddard.

Walking through the break room with an easy stride, Stoddard points to a pool table, a TV and comfortable seating areas stocked with magazines, where staffers are free to relax throughout the day. In the handsomely landscaped patio area outside the windows, a ping-pong table is also provided for entertainment during milder weather. “I think facility matters,” Stoddard says. “People need to know that you are willing to invest in them and care about them.”

NCU’s paper towels are more lush than the discount type found in most offices; the lunchrooms are furnished with name-brand coffee and free “slushee” drinks. Signs that post “rules” are respectful and explanatory rather than imperial. The effect of measures like these, says Stoddard, is an atmosphere of trust.

“If we have a ping-pong table, it says that we trust you to take a break and play. We trust that you are here to help our students do the best they can,” he says. “We want to engage people so they engage NCU. No one takes advantage of it. I think we hire great people.”

Stoddard has been leading up NCU’s “team members,” the term preferred over employees (managers are dubbed team leaders), for 4½ years. He also manages the training team, which is tasked with training full-time team members and monitoring the quality of phone calls to help staff “get better at what they do.”

The organization’s values were formed in a collaborative process, with everyone submitting ideas. What emerged was a culture founded on integrity, and crystallized in the acronym IDEAS: innovation, diversity, excellence and accountability.

Stoddard spends a full day orienting new hires on NCU culture and also invests in webinar/video technology to share the vision with offsite team members.

“How do you live innovation?” he asks rhetorically. “From day to day, we make sure people are thinking up new ideas, that channels are in place for people to actually make them happen, and to let people know ‘my actions actually matter.’”

NCU routinely surveys students who finish a course on the service they’ve experienced, and feedback is extremely positive, according to Stoddard. Indeed, visitors to the open, collaborative cubicle areas will notice a sea of easy smiles and what Stoddard describes as a “neat buzz of energy about the place.”

One of the benefits of working at NCU is free tuition for any team member, their spouse, domestic partner or children. The perk ends up benefitting the university, Stoddard says, because it helps those manning the phones to better understand students’ challenges—from scheduling problems to resources for those struggling in a course.

Stoddard himself is taking the opportunity to pursue an MBA.

“The focus is on you, your education and how to apply that to what you are doing in your career right now,” he says of his experience thus far. “My laptop is my classroom. It’s rewarding, and challenging, too.”