Sixty-five years ago, elected officials from 16 southern states agreed on one issue: Having an educated population reaps economic rewards not only for the people, but for the state and region as well. From that philosophy, they created the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based organization that focuses on improving the lives of citizens through higher education.
“We particularly work with programs related to access for students,” explained Mary Larson, SREB’s director of student access and program services who has been with the organization for 16 years. “One of our most important programs is the Electronic Campus that we started in 1997. It helps a lot of people take courses online.”
The program’s largest audience is the busy adult, someone with a job, a bustling life and no time to sit in a traditional classroom. It aims to help students who never completed a degree get to graduation.
“The Electronic Campus provides access for nontraditional students; it’s not aimed at someone who can go on campus and finish the degree,” Larson said. “But maybe someone has three years’ worth of credits from two institutions, and they want to finish a degree, but they’re also working. They can go to our site and search what specific requirements there are and see whether or not a program will be a good fit for them.”
Many of those students, regardless of age, may find it more convenient to take online classes. The SREB provides information on offerings at regional institutions that fit their particular needs and also offers advice about taking online courses.
“Some people used to think that 'online’ meant 'easy,’ but it actually requires more discipline,” Larson said “But it is a convenience for the adult who wants to finish a degree.”
The SREB’s extensive catalog of online courses allows students to search the institutions in member states from one website, instead of having to visit individual school sites. Students can also click links to the institutions that interest them.
“We’re more of a clearinghouse, a service to our states and the residents in those states,” Larson explained. “The institutions have their own enrollment and admission policies, and they enroll students directly. In fact, many institutions don’t even ask how the students found out about them; they just move the students into the normal enrollment process.”
Another service the SREB offers is the Academic Common Market, which provides information about member states’ public universities and their programs. It allows students to see if courses they want to take are offered in their home state, and if not, helps them find the classes in other states.
“This allows students access to programs they don’t have in their home state,” Larson said. “It would not be history or accounting that most colleges have, but it could be forensic accounting. Or perhaps you want to study marine biology, and you’re in Tennessee. The market gives you the ability to go to a public school in the region that offers what you want at an institution that waives the out-of-state tuition fee.”
The bottom line of the SREB’s programs is, in fact, helping students and their states with the economic bottom line.
“There’s a lot of information available in many places for traditional students,” Larson said. “We want to focus on helping older students finish their degrees so they can improve their credentials and maybe find better employment by having that diploma.”