2020 Trinidad State News

A Part-Time Associate Degree in Four Semesters: TGIF!

Trinidad and Valley Campus / August 6, 2020 / By Maria Muniz

Trinidad State photo If you have a job, a family, or other large commitments on your time, the idea of going back to school for an associate degree can seem daunting, if not improbable. Traditional college learning involves daytime classes just about every weekday — a complete deal-breaker for the employed or anyone who juggles multiple responsibilities. In the last several years, a number of online degree programs have offered a path to education for working adults, but they often leave out some of the most valuable aspects of college — the synergy of classroom interaction and the network-building with peers and instructors.

Sometimes there’s an option of getting an associate degree through part-time community college programs — if you happen to live near a college where the classes you need are offered at night. But that can take at least twice as long, and — critically for many students — it may eliminate eligibility for financial aid or substantially reduce the funds you can be awarded.

That’s why Trinidad State Junior College (TSJC) is rolling out a new solution for these learners in fall 2020: TGIF. A hybrid degree program that combines the best of online learning with important aspects of in-person learning, TGIF offers students a way to earn an associate degree in business or general studies in two years. The program’s key benefit is that it keeps every Monday through Thursday free so that students can go to a job or attend to their other responsibilities. Instead, high-quality classroom sessions will take place on ten Fridays per semester, while the rest of the coursework is delivered online. Students can manage their own flexible schedules and learn during whatever hours are convenient for them. In other words, it’s education that takes place largely at the right time and the right place for each student who enrolls.

Lisa Cheney-Steen, a business instructor at Trinidad State, is one of the architects of the TGIF program. She sees it as a way to help multiple demographics get the education they need with the least disruption to their lives and responsibilities — and with the smallest financial burden. “I actually came here to help the president, Rhonda Epper, develop the college’s online program, but we ended up focusing on hybrid, blended learning because of the students we could reach. The missing students in our region seem to be the first-generation adult learners, and that’s who Trinidad really wants to engage,” she explains. “So we started asking, ‘How can we best serve this group of people?’ They have jobs, they have families, they would like to have personal lives. They’re crazy-busy and there’s no way they can come to class Monday through Friday.”

And that’s where TGIF fills the education gap. Cheney-Steen and her colleagues determined that the solution was to move a major portion of program instruction online, so the only days that students would have to plan around were Fridays. But while the program was spearheaded with working adults in mind, it’s equally appropriate for students who have just finished high school. Community college can be a smart option for younger students, whether they want to get an associate degree and start working right away, or if they are looking to save money by logging the first two years of their bachelor’s degree at a community college. TGIF’s flexible schedule also makes it easier for these young students to work while studying, helping them get through college with less debt to repay after graduation — a concern that weighs heavy on the mind of many students.

Capitalizing on Different Learning Styles
What type of student benefits from a program like this? It turns out, pretty much any student. Are you an introvert? A hybrid degree program may be for you. Are you an extrovert? A hybrid degree program may be for you also!

Cheney-Steen points out that while classrooms are dynamic learning environments, the classroom setting tends to favor extroverted personality types — people who build their knowledge base by talking through their ideas out loud. “With discussions in the classroom, extroverts have an advantage because they can just pop up and talk. They don’t worry so much about whether they’re right, and if you tell them they aren’t, they’re okay with it because that’s why they were talking,” she explains. “But then you have the introverts in the back who really want to wait and think before responding. Online aligns so much better for those folks because they can look at what their classmates have posted online during the discussion and they can add their very thoughtful responses to that. Online learning gives these students time to be reflective and participate.”

She notes too that for those students who hesitate to ask questions and express themselves, online classes provide a safe environment for them to build confidence. The classes offer channels for students to communicate directly with instructors in order to hone their ideas before putting them out in front of their peers.

For all students, Friday class meetings will be a chance to catch up on points that need further elaboration and on subjects that can be understood more effectively in a give-and-take, question-and-answer setting. Class meetings are also the time for hands-on and collaborative projects that can’t be as easily simulated in the virtual world.

Extroverts bring their energy to these in-person settings, just as introverts bring their well-considered insights to the online setting. So not only does the TGIF format benefit both types of learners, the two types of learners directly enrich each others’ overall experience. It’s a win-win learning experience.

Flexible Learning Modes on a Flexible Schedule
The online component of TGIF is asynchronous, meaning it can be accessed on the student’s own schedule at whatever time is convenient for each student’s unique needs. Students are required to post on discussion boards, which means they get to sharpen their writing skills in all their classes, not just English Composition. Good written communication is essential in almost any career field, and as with any skill, the best way to improve it is to practice it. Asynchronous online classes are like a bonus course in writing because using writing as a class participation tool fosters improvement.

In addition to the discussion boards, online courses include a blend of reading, video, and audio material. This variety of content encourages retention and allows students to focus on the media types they learn best from.

And of course, it also means students can absorb the content at whatever pace they want. In a traditional classroom, there’s no pause or back button on an instructor standing at the front of a room. But online, students can take their time with the material and refer to it as often as necessary.

Assigned content can even become an ongoing resource for personal enrichment. Cheney-Steen notes that many of her former students became regular, enthusiastic listeners of the podcasts she has assigned during her own classes. What’s more, audio content can enhance a student’s knowledge at almost any time — while driving, while doing household chores, as a substitute for the nightly Netflix binge, or whenever it fits best into a busy schedule.

Best of Both Worlds: Online Degree Meets Traditional Networking
Given the benefits of online learning, why didn’t TSJC just make the associate degree into a fully online degree? One key reason: the hybrid degree program saves students cash. In Colorado, online education is more expensive, so blending it with traditional classes lowers tuition.

But more importantly, Cheney-Steen explains, she and her colleagues who developed the hybrid degree program knew that the power of networking is an essential component of a good education.

“I’ve been in online learning for 20 years, and I love online learning, but the networking that a more traditional approach brings is not something we want to skip,” Cheney-Steen emphasizes. “There are advantages to face-to-face learning environments, particularly for adult learners who are attending classes in the geographic area where they wish to stay and work.”

Indeed, she says, building a social and professional network is one of the main incentives for going to college. “When you talk to people who have MBAs from online programs that also had a residency component, even if it was only two or three weeks per year, people love them. That’s because they get acquainted with fellow students and mentors who stay friends for a lifetime, and they develop a network of professional and personal relationships all within the same business area that interests them.”

Meeting people in your field is as important as learning the material in your field. Career experts continually stress that most jobs are found not by submitting lots of resumes, but by leveraging personal and professional networks.

Trinidad State photo A Net Increase in Hands-On Learning
When it comes to subject mastery, there’s really no substitute for learning by doing, and the longer Friday sessions will open up hands-on opportunities for TSJC’s students. “The instructors are all excited because they’ll have a bigger chunk of time to do things like field trips that they can’t do in a 50-minute class period,” enthuses Cheney-Steen.

In particular, the two lab science classes required for the associate degree will be enhanced. Students can learn the information on their own time but do actual fieldwork on Fridays. “With three-and-a-half hours,” says Cheney-Steen, “you can actually go down to the river here and do water testing and count bugs and a variety of activities like that. The instructors have a lot of ideas they are eager to implement.”

Associate Degree in Two Years? Absolutely Doable
In Cheney-Steen’s words, TGIF’s blend of online and in-person learning makes a two-year associate degree “absolutely doable,” even for adults with jobs and families. Students can take more time if they still prefer a part-time community college experience but they should keep in mind that full-time enrollment (12 credit hours or more per semester) is required for financial aid.

The TGIF program is laid out as five courses in the fall, followed by four in spring. Online learning will be ongoing through the end of the term, while Friday classes will wrap up a few weeks ahead of each term’s end.

Since ten Fridays are more than enough for the required class time, the first Friday morning will be an orientation and study-skills day, a time for students to make sure they’re up and running online, know how to use library services, obtain financial aid information, learn study strategies, and meet their instructors and peers.

Focus on Professional Development
There are still some Friday time blocks that aren’t used up by the classes, and the TGIF program is putting them to the best possible use. Visiting speakers will give presentations to help students put together the professional toolkit they’ll need when they set out in the workplace to launch their new careers.

These career skills-building sessions will focus on essentials like resume writing, interview tips, and job search strategies. Students will also meet with local business leaders to learn what hiring managers look for in employees and to get up to date on trends in Colorado’s workforce landscape. Presentations will also provide details on starting up new businesses, which Cheney-Steen says is a goal of many entrepreneurial-minded students who are pursuing the associate degree in business.

Above all, these sessions are designed to give students an opportunity to meet and network with entrepreneurs and employers in the community where they’ll be looking for employment and ultimately, working.

As before, these degrees are fully transferrable to four-year institutions if a student wants to pursue that option. Even without plans to transfer, the value of getting an associate degree remains significant. An associate degree can boost salary potential, and meet the minimum educational requirements listed in many job postings. TSJC’s business associate degree also provides a solid foundation in the principles of economics, accounting, statistics, and business communications — the kind of knowledge that can boost career performance in just about any field. Even as a complement to an existing degree in another area, a business associate degree on a resume can give a job candidate a significant edge.

The TGIF hybrid degree program will be available at both Trinidad State campuses as of fall 2020, and prospective students can preview the schedule for the business associate degree now. Students interested in the general associate degree will begin with the same classes in fall, and the second year will be mapped out according to the needs and interests of the students who enroll.

Please visit the TGIF program page on our website to find out more about how you can gain the benefits of both online and traditional education while you earn your associate degree on a schedule that accommodates the life you’ve already built.

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