BANGOR, Maine — Ariel Bright has so much to do she can’t fit it all in a regular weekly planner. Instead she uses a three-ring, inch-thick binder to organize her days, weeks and months.
“Everything is planned out months in advance and I use my computer and I use my phone so I have a backup,” she said. “And this is not including my work calendar.”
The 20-year-old University of Maine at Augusta student works full-time as a store manager at a bakery. She is also a full-time student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
She lives in Virginia Beach.
Bright is among a growing number of students earning their degrees either partially or fully online from University of Maine System schools. The number of credit hours offered online has increased by close to 80 percent over the last five years in order to match increasing demand, according to a UMS report from fall 2013. Though the University of Maine System does not count the number of students systemwide who are enrolled in online courses, UMS spokesperson Peggy Markson said the number is increasing.
UMA is leading the charge with 28 percent of its students taking the majority of their classes online, up from 10 percent in 2009. Last month, U.S. News and World Report ranked UMA 61st out of close to 300 schools nationally on its list of top online bachelor’s degree programs.
The UM system attempted to make it easier for students to enroll in online courses in 2011 when online.maine.edu was launched. The site was designed to streamline information about online programs offered on all seven campuses.
Maine is in step with the rest of the country. In 2011, 32 percent of college students were enrolled in at least one online course, according to a 2013 report from the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board. It was the 10th straight year the number had risen.
The reasons students opt for an online degree program are varied, but they tend to have to do with convenience and the ability to keep a job while earning the degree.
“There’s not really an option of not having an income,” Bright said. “It’s kind of impossible. There’s rent to pay.”
Credits earned online cost the same as those earned in the classroom at UMS schools, in most cases. Out-of-state students pay a reduced rate for all online courses at UMA and some online courses at UMFK. Students also save money by not paying room and board, minimizing commuting and by working.
Bright added that she wants the flexibility of being able to live anywhere while she pursues her degree. Her husband works for Dave and Busters, a restaurant chain, and if he gets transferred to a different location, she needs to be able to pick up and go.
For Judy Davidson, 47, an ed tech for Regional School Unit 4, getting a degree online has more to do with efficiency.
“There’s no way I would be finished in the amount of time I’m going to if I had to travel to every class,” Davidson, who lives in Litchfield, said.
By taking classes online, students are able to watch lectures at a time that fits their schedule and they don’t have to commute. Assignments still have due dates and courses have to be completed within a traditional semester, but day-to-day schedules can be more flexible.
Online course offerings also allow Davidson to take courses from other campuses, which means she has more flexibility when scheduling classes.
“The colleges offer some of the same core classes but they don’t always offer them at the same time,” she explained. “Just being able to search the whole UMaine System and be able to take something at the time I need to works for me.”
Davidson has taken classes from the University of Maine at Presque Isle and the University of Maine at Fort Kent. Though the university system has struggled to make it easy for students to transfer between universities, Davidson said she has not had any trouble transferring credits she earned outside UMA.
The students interviewed for this article acknowledged that taking classes online isn’t for everyone. It requires self motivation and an extreme level of organization.
“It can be a little intimidating at first,” said Chris McGrath, a library technician from Pueblo, Colo. who received a bachelor’s degree in information library services from UMA. “It’s not a misconception that you spend more time in an online class than a regular class. Some classes can be really homework heavy.”
McGrath said she decided to go back to school after she got laid off in 2010. She needed a program that would allow her to do her job search and then work while she studied.
Jodi Williams, associate professor of information and library services — a completely online program at UMA — said that she has found that online courses work for her students, who know what they want from a degree and want to get it as quickly as possible. The method does present some challenges, however.
“Students just can’t walk into an office and sit down and say, ‘I need help with financial aid,’” she said. “They need to call or email and make sure they have contacts who can help them.”
Williams added that offering her courses online adds a level of richness that would not otherwise be possible. She has taught students from Micronesia to the Middle East to Maine, all from her office in Augusta.
A previous version of this story erroneously stated that credits earned online cost the same as those earned in the classroom at UMS schools. That is true in most but not all cases.