For Rhode Islanders in Blackstone Valley communities, a college education can be difficult to access. To make matters worse and due to the pandemic, Rhode Island saw a decline in undergraduate college enrollment by 8.1 percent in 2020, which is double the national average. This deepens to an alarming 14.2 percent decline when segmented for four-year private, nonprofit colleges. This does not bode well for would-be students looking to secure or improve their career trajectories, nor our state as a whole.

Higher education is the key for so many individuals looking to open the door to future success.  But the price of tuition, time required, travel and housing costs, and other limiting factors prevent so many from utilizing this proven path toward success.

Rhode Island College and New England Tech continue to provide life-changing education for many, making a positive difference for individuals, families, and communities. For some people, however, another approach might make getting a degree or industry-relevant certification more attainable. This is especially true for historically under-represented communities – including first-generation college students, low-income populations, students of color, and working adults.

So, what can be done?

Online education serves as one of the fastest growing segments of higher education in the U.S. and is a key to access for non-traditional students and students who need to work while pursuing postsecondary learning.

In the competency-based, totally online model, students who learn faster or dedicate more time on their schoolwork can advance through the program at their own pace. Through this unique approach, students accelerate through learning at their individual pace, fitting their studies into the spaces of their lives. With customized support and mentorship, each student progresses through courses as soon as they can prove they have mastered the material.

This approach—the benefits of which we have seen at Western Governors University—expands opportunity and access to jobs. Take the example of Rhode Island resident Joe Clark, a recent graduate of the WGU Teachers College who earned his Bachelor of Science degree in special education. He told us that due to working full-time, a traditional higher education model would preclude him from devoting the necessary time and resources toward accomplishing his goal of becoming a special education teacher for the City of Pawtucket.  Online higher education has been a godsend for Joe and it could be the same for so many other individuals in Rhode Island looking to better themselves and their communities.

It is important that every resident who wants to earn a degree that leads to a thriving wage in an in-demand career knows about the multiple viable, high-quality options available to them to pursue the opportunity.  Online education often gets an undeserving bad rap, but it is exactly the type of opportunity that so many in our community need.  It leads to benefits not only for the individuals, but all of Rhode Island as well.

Rep. Carlos E. Tobon, a Democrat, represents District 58 in Pawtucket.

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 200 students and 450 alumni in Rhode Island.