Distance learning with a twist - real campuses

When Joey Potter graduated from high school in this dusty delta town, college was the furthest thing from his mind. He wanted a paycheck - fast. But a decade later, the thrill of a fat wallet had given way to the drudgery of factory jobs. With the added responsibility of marriage and parenthood, he decided it was time to go back to school.

Relocation was out of the question. So he is attending the newest of Arkansas State University's dozen satellite campuses, which opened here in Paragould last month.

He didn't know he was part of a "hidden market" that the university is trying to draw out of the shadows. It was just a simple matter of convenience.

"Putting the campus here, that's what got me to enroll; it's perfect for my situation," says Mr. Potter, who hopes to become a physical-education teacher. "Guy like me, been out of school for 11 years, I like the smaller campus - not near the pressure you'd have in Jonesboro [the 10,000-student main campus]."

Satellite campuses are widening their orbit because of advancing technology and a belief on the part of state legislators that tax dollars should support all potential students, not just the traditional 18- to-22-year-old set.

Compressed video, the Internet, and other advances have made the coursework and administrative logistics of satellite campuses possible. But where state universities are concerned, some experts say the trend is also a tacit admission that countless attempts nationwide to create the "next Silicon Valley" - luring high-tech companies in an attempt to create a critical mass of economic development - have failed.

Especially in slow-growth areas like the rural South or Appalachia, there is a growing acknowledgment that regions will have to educate their way out of economic stagnation. Traditionally isolated state-university towns are finding that they have to reach out to underdeveloped corners of the state.

"We have an opportunity, through technology, to extend the Arkansas State community far beyond the two-square-mile area we sit within, to reach a constituency we've never reached before," says Mark Hoeting, ASU's director of information technology.

ASU's Paragould "campus" doesn't look much like a vanguard of higher education. Carved out of a portion of an old Wal-Mart store on the edge of town, there are no ivy-covered brick buildings and the "quadrangle" is a nearly empty parking lot. A single banner - hung on a chain-link fence that once presumably encompassed the store's garden center - announces the institution's presence.

But inside, the space - which was renovated in only six weeks and opened in August with more than 200 students - is an oasis that resembles a high-tech corporate office.

Newly painted walls, carpeting, six classrooms, and a central lobby bordered by a glass-walled lounge and a computer lab create an inviting ambiance. Fresh-faced students with obligatory backpacks shuffle in and out.

Though a majority of the students here, like Potter, are nontraditional, they are joined by a significant number of recent high school graduates.

"Imagine a youngster from a little bitty town, with a high school of maybe 250 students, faced with the prospect of going to our Jonesboro campus with 10,000 students," says Dr. Jerry Linnstaedter, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at ASU. "It's intimidating. Often they just won't go."

Both groups represent a hidden market of students-in-waiting.

"The head count here is mostly brand new people," says Verlene Ringgenberg, director of off-campus credit for the university. "As we talked with them, we have found most of them were never going to Jonesboro, particularly the nontraditional group that has families and jobs. This is meeting a need that simply wasn't being met."

That's what's on the mind of Mr. Hoeting as he looks from his office window on the Jonesboro campus across the Mississippi River Valley to a five-county area, home to 225,000 public-school students. The university captures only 4 to 5 percent of that total, he says, and he believes there are tens of thousands of Joey Potters out there. ASU's total enrollment could conceivably grow tenfold.

To achieve that kind of growth here and at other state universities, the method of delivery will likely have to morph again, down to the individual level, so students can earn degrees in their home or office. But observers say the pie is so big that home delivery of a college education does not necessarily threaten satellite campuses, and may not even slow their growth.

The greatest competitive threat to these campuses may be other satellite campuses. ASU's campuses are all within Arkansas. But other universities know no such geographic boundaries. Webster University, for instance, is based in St. Louis, Mo., but has set up four campuses in neighboring Arkansas.

Experts say satellite campuses have a secure niche, because they offer the best of both worlds - a chance to congregate but also to live close to home while taking advantage of technology's conveniences.

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