Increasing Access to Education for Southcentral Kentuckians and Beyond

Over the past 20+ years in academia, my research agenda has centered on identifying barriers and implementing facilitators that increase access to timely health care for community dwelling citizens. This endeavor continues to be breathtaking because I have been fortunate to find mechanisms that overcome barriers that individuals, many of whom have co-morbid health conditions, experience while accessing health services. Likewise, as an academician and administrator, I also have a passion for increasing access to education for students who may not be in a position to earn a degree and if not through online modalities. The mid-1990s saw an initiation of online courses and programs offered by colleges and universities whose primary target audience was working adults and degree completion students.[1] Some have argued that online education, and other digital learning techniques, is one of the greatest hopes for reforming higher education.[2] Interestingly, so many residential colleges balked at embracing online education, but not WKU. WKU made a concerted and assiduous effort by establishing an elaborate program of online education. Just this past year, WKU has been recognized by several reputable entities as a leader in online education. For instance, WKU ranked #2 in the nation for online bachelor’s programs, according to the US News and World Report.

CHHS has four graduate programs (Master of Healthcare Administration, Master of Science in Nursing, Master of Science in Communication Disorders, and Master of Science in Recreation and Sports Administration), seven graduate certificate programs (Advanced Worksite Health Promotion, Dietetic Practice, Environmental Health and Safety, Facility and Event Management, Nonprofit Administration, post MSN Nurse Administrator, and Post-MSN Nurse Educator), five undergraduate degrees (Family and Consumer Sciences – Child Studies, Family and Consumer Sciences – Family Studies, Health Science, Dental Hygiene, and Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree), 4 undergraduate certificates (Cross Cultural Communication in Health Care, Family Home Visiting, Occupational Health and Safety, Worksite Health Promotion), five undergraduate minors (Child Studies, Family Home Visiting, Consumer & Family Sciences, Family Studies, and Nonprofit Administration) and one Associate degree (Early Childhood Education) exclusively online. Both our Master of Science in Recreation and Sports Administration and Master of Health Administration received national recognition for their top quality.

Here in the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) we want to increase access to education for students in the region, as well as within and outside of the US. As evidence of that desire, a total of 9,974 students—who generated 28,119 credit hours—were enrolled in one of our online classes over the most recent year (fall 2014, winter 2015, spring 2015, and summer 2015 sessions). CHHS online students can get the same education as our on campus students but with the added convenience of working from wherever you need to be. Our geographical region includes a large rural area where there is a distinct shortage of health care providers. CHHS is in a great position to not only obviate this detrimental fact, but also to proliferate the health care provider workforce. Through the delivery of online degree programs in CHHS, we are able to increase the chances that our residents in rural communities in southcentral Kentucky access more care because we are able to provide both undergraduate and graduate level degrees to students and advance them to practitioners. We are also able to accommodate the education needs of nontraditional students (e.g., individuals with full time jobs and parents) who need the flexibility that online programs provide.

I wanted to highlight a few of our online programs in CHHS.

In the late 1990’s CHHS’s Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) program began offering online courses to students pursuing a master’s degree in speech-language pathology in partnership with the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky as part of the Kentucky Virtual University consortium. After the other partners left the consortium, WKU’s CSD program, with the leadership of Drs. Stan Cooke and Barbara Brindle, began a WKU online master’s degree program in speech-language pathology. At the same time, states across the country began requiring speech-language pathologists who work in public schools to have a master’s degree. As a result, there were a large number of speech-language pathologists with a bachelor’s degree who needed to find a master’s program close to home or leave their jobs and move to a university that had such a program. Because WKU’s CSD on-line program was one of only a few in the country, many prospective students applied to the program. Since 2001 the CSD on-line program has graduated over 500 students with a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. These students work in schools and clinics from Maine to California, and even in other countries (talk about international reach!). A large number of graduates are speech-language pathologists who work in the New York City schools.

Since 2001, CHHS has an exclusive agreement with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to offer this unique program to those clinicians in New York who needed a master’s degree. When asked by his colleagues at other traditional campus-based master’s programs about the success of online education Dr. Richard Dressler, CSD’s Director of the graduate program, states “Our online students pass the national board exam at the same level of success as our campus-based students. This shows that their knowledge and application of the content obtained through distance education is comparable to the traditional campus education”. A recent graduate student from the UFT program stated the following: “I have obtained employment with the NYC Department of Education and will commence work on September 8th. Thank you to you and your faculty for all that you do and the constant support you give your students! I am very proud and grateful to be part of the WKU community!” Similarly, one student indicated the following: “Being a student in the distance-learning program allowed me not only to be close to my family but to be close to my classmates, as well.  This program also improved my self-motivational, organizational, and critical thinking skills that have been imperative for entering the field.”

The Healthcare Administration program at WKU focuses on equipping the surrounding communities, and the nation as a whole, with skilled and passionate health administrators who are dedicated to leading and managing health services in a way that would bring positive changes to the health of the nation. Over time, with the same focus in mind, we identified a need to reach out to healthcare professionals where they work and live and provide them with a flexible and collaborative learning program leading to MHA degree. The Executive EMHA program at WKU was launched in spring 2012 to meet the educational needs of practicing healthcare professionals. The program is delivered in an online platform with a requirement of only 20 contact hours in a class setting occurring on a 3-day applied learning symposium. The program achieved an enrollment of nearly 50 candidates by spring 2015 with a student body made of individuals with healthcare careers spanning many decades and in a broad spectrum of managerial and clinical practices. In the short time of its existence, the MHA program has opened doors for educational advancement to a large proportion of alumni from our undergraduate program. These are mainly individuals who are hindered from moving into higher levels in the healthcare management system due to deficiencies in their educational experience. About 40% of the current EMHA enrollees fall into this category. Recently, a collaborative agreement signed between WKU and the University of Pikeville, made it possible for EMHA program to open doors for students from Pikeville’s Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine to pursue a MHA degree. The future of the program looks brighter both domestically – with more innovative solutions for reaching healthcare professionals at their practice sites, and internationally – whereby the EMHA model is expected to be implemented for health professionals in abroad settings.

The online graduate program in Recreation and Sport Administration started as an experiment to serve professionals who couldn’t quit their jobs in order to continue their education. The experiment has evolved into one of the largest programs in the country with an incredible network of alumni working in nearly every state. In 2009, WKU’s School of KRS created a 100% online program in Recreation and Sport Administration with a concentration in Athletic Administration and Coaching. The original concentration was designed to meet the needs of non-traditional interscholastic athletic coaches and administrators. This concentration currently enrolls over 100 new graduate students annually.

KRS launched another online program in Facility and Event Management during the fall 2011 term. The FEM program partnered with the International Association for Venue Managers to provide students with two years of membership while enrolled. Fall 2014 saw the creation of the newest RSA program entitled Intercollegiate Athletic Administration. This program was designed for individuals interested in careers in college athletic administration. Students complete specialized coursework in content areas such as sport governance, compliance, and student-athlete development. Through a partnership with the National Association for Athletics Compliance, graduates not only earn a master’s degree, but also the NAAC Education Certification in Compliance. The IAA concentration and certificate program currently enrolls 60 new students each year.

CHHS is embracing the landscape of the university classroom by increasing educational content through online education in multiple contexts. Teaching online courses well takes dedicated, innovative professors and requires considerably more time than traditional teaching. CHHS faculty members who are delivering their courses through online modalities are devoted to delivering novel, state-of-the-art pedagogies to increase access to education for students. We will continue to strive for academic excellence while still being widely accessible to both undergraduate and graduate students and engaged in communities in southcentral Kentucky to meet health professional shortages.


[1] Monaco, P. 2014. “A successful career as an online Dean”. Pp. 33 -38 in The Resource Handbook for Academic Deans (3rd edition). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

[2] Bennett. WJ and Wilezol D. 2013. Is College worth it? Thomas Nelson: Nashville.



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