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Coffee with Excelsior president Ebersole

I had coffee yesterday with John F. Ebersole of Excelsior College, America's First Virtual University.

Excelsior specializes in helping mid-career adults finish their studies. The school's army of advisers work with college credits the way a debt relief service works with bills, consolidating everything onto a nice, clean transcript and helping people find their way to graduation.


The school offers an alternative to traditional colleges, especially for the large number of adults in the "some college" category of educational attainment.

The typical college isn't particularly helpful in accepting transfer credits, and will expect the student to spend a certain amount of time -- and money -- studying there before it will grant a degree.

"They're saying, 'We want you to have had an academic experience with us," Ebersole said. "The other reason, which is never talked about, is, 'If you're going to get our degree, you're going to have to pay our fees.'"

Excelsior, by contrast, exists to serve the transfer student.

In the 2008-09 academic year, Excelsior accepted 580,000 credits from 11,500 learners, representing an estimated economic value of $185 million. The school boasts that it turns the credits into "working assets," recovering their value for use toward an eventual degree.

"We're an educational HMO," Ebersole said.

The school was founded in 1971 by the New York State Board of Regents "specifically to address the needs of working adults who did not have degrees," Ebersole said, and was originally known as Regents College. The school became private, and changed its name in 2001.

Today, Excelsior occupies an unusual niche, one of four private, not-for-profit institutions operating primarily online. The college is known for its flexibility: students can redeem credits from virtually any reputable institution, and its advisers specialize in helping students cash them in toward a degree. Excelsior also offers a wide range of college-level tests that can yield credit. Until five years ago, Excelsior didn't even offer courses of its own: its sole purpose was to sort out student transcripts and help them finish their studies elsewhere.

"Our average student has five transcripts," Ebersole said. "You bring in your five transcripts. What we will do is aggregate those and make some sense out of your work."

He can empathize: as a military child, Ebersole himself moved 17 times in 21 years. "I had over 180 semester units of credit accumulated at seven different institutions. "Life gets in the way," he said. "Our mission is really to give those individuals a second chance."

Today, Excelsior serves 30,000 students, of whom about 5,000 are taking courses (mostly online) from the college.

The Excelsior campus is three buildings in Albany, N.Y., with 400 employees and 900 faculty -- many in remote locales -- teaching 300 courses.

Online learning is not for everyone. "I particularly do not think it's appropriate for 18-to-24-year-olds," Ebersole said. "They need to get out of their bedroom."

But only 10 percent of Excelsior's students are in that age group. Most are older working adults with busy lives.

Ebersole pioneered online education at Berkeley, helping to put that university's correspondence courses online through an early iteration of America Online. He administered online programs at Colorado State and Boston universities before coming to Excelsior. He looks a bit like a ship captain and is, in fact, a retired Coast Guard commander.

Ebersole is one of those who, like Burck Smith of StraighterLine, believe future students will think of college as a menu of courses -- probably online courses -- rather than a four-year residency at a particular college.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  March 16, 2010; 5:34 PM ET
Categories:  Accreditation , Administration , Attainment , Finance , Online , Pedagogy  | Tags: Excelsior College, Online education, StraighterLine  
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I'm a 43-year-old senior at Excelsior and cannot say enough good things about that institution and Dr. Ebersole. Life truly did get in the way for me, and I resumed my education as soon as I had both the money and the time to do so (it took 20 years). Thanks to Excelsior, I'm well on my way to having that all-important "B.A." after my name. More people need to know they have real, affordable options other than the University of Phoenix, DeVry, or community college.

Posted by: YouGotta | March 17, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Great article Dan. Excelsior does a terrific job for students. They also accept ACE approved credits, like StraighterLine's. There are a growing number of institutions and companies that are facilitating credit accumulation. Another interesting company/website is Academy One's They are building a database of all colleges' articulation agreements with other colleges so students can easily see what courses are equivalent to other courses. This create a much more efficient market for evaluating the price of a course. Thanks for mentioning us!

Burck Smith, StraighterLine

Posted by: burck | March 17, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

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