CORVALLIS - As thousands of Oregon's college graduates march through their commencement ceremonies this month, an increasing number of them bear little resemblance to the traditional 24-year-old student finishing up their studies, finding their first full-time job and getting ready to start a career.
Now joining the ranks are older-than-average students, working adults changing careers, and dozens of graduates who achieved their educational goals despite the multiple obligations of jobs, families and mortgages - including some who may never have set foot on a college campus.
Leading that trend is the rapidly expanding OSU Statewide program at Oregon State University.
"Our student credit hours increased about 20 percent this year and we expect that same level of growth next year," said Sandra Woods, interim dean of distance and continuing education at OSU. "There's a whole new group of students we're serving now who are place and time-bound and simply never had access to higher education before. Now they do."
OSU Statewide is perhaps the most comprehensive and ambitious program of extended education offered anywhere in Oregon, using a variety of technologies and other tools to literally make a college degree possible in any corner of the state, and now working with more than 900 students.
The average age of its students is 36, not 21 or 22. It has expanded in the past three years to provide four different undergraduate degree options and can be used in more than 20 different undergraduate and graduate areas of study.
The quality, versatility and convenience of the program has led to a 48 percent growth of student credit hours in the past two years, Woods said, and officials expect that level to more than double in the next three years as more course offerings and programs are developed.
Reflecting that trend is Cliff Williams, 43, a Bend resident who will graduate summa cum laude this month with a 3.85 grade point average.
"I worked much of my career doing national television advertising sales for networks such as NBC and CBS," Williams said. "But I wanted something more self-fulfilling than just a paycheck. And for what I needed, the OSU Statewide program was fantastic. It was a tremendous experience."
OSU's liberal studies degree, Williams said, gave him exactly the type of well-rounded education he sought as a prerequisite to getting an elementary education teaching certificate, and he was able to obtain the full four-year degree right on schedule working through OSU and its partner in the Bend area, Central Oregon Community College.
"I want to teach young students in grades three through five," Williams said. "At that age they still really want to learn and I feel I can bond and connect with them. But my wife already works as a teacher in a Bend high school, and we have a mortgage and car payments and obligations. There was no way I could just pull up and leave in order to get a degree."
A student with a similar goal but different circumstances was Kevin Kraly, 26, a Redmond, Ore., resident who has completed a bachelor of arts degree through OSU Statewide and will be on the OSU campus for only the fourth time at OSU's June 13 commencement ceremony, to pick up his degree.
Kraly also hopes to become an elementary school teacher but had different obstacles to overcome - he 's blind. Kraly and his seeing-eye dog, Novice, a black lab, have been a familiar fixture at many courses OSU offered in central Oregon since he began work on a degree in 1995.
"I used all the available technology and worked with OSU teachers a lot on e-mail, on the phone or in classes," Kraly said. "For my situation the use of computers made some of the work easier. And I didn't have to go to the OSU campus to get a degree, so that saved a lot of money."
Kraly's ultimate career goal, after further education, is to teach blind students at the elementary level. And he's strongly considering using more distance programs for some of that education.
OSU Statewide now has undergraduate degree programs in liberal studies, general agriculture, environmental sciences and natural resources. On a graduate level more programs are offered such as electrical and computer engineering, nutrition and food management, and education.
Advisers travel around Oregon to assist OSU Statewide students in planning their education. Almost every type of distance education technology - web courses, individualized directed learning, interactive video, and actual on-site classes - is used to create an effective learning atmosphere. Partnerships with numerous other universities and community colleges provide for a vast array of course offerings, degree possibilities and study options that transcend time and location. Some programs are custom designed for certain groups such as Native Americans at the Warm Springs Reservation.