It started out as a temporary job, just to earn a little cash while she studied nursing.
But Nancy Stava's supervisors at a Lincoln Shopko store persuaded her to enter the retailer's leadership training program. Her higher education plans were put on the shelf as the promotions started coming and her job morphed into a career.
Today, Stava, 45, is an events manager for the Old Navy division of the Gap Inc., responsible for a territory covering 212 stores. Yet she still would like to finish that bachelor's degree she started more than two decades ago.
To that end, Stava is among the first students to enroll in a newly created online program at Creighton University. The program, which offers a bachelor's degree in integrated leadership studies, is Creighton's first fully online undergraduate degree program.
Once the purview of for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, online degree programs now are standard curriculum for most major universities.
With online enrollments growing faster than in traditional higher education, public institutions and private nonprofits now provide more than 63 percent of degree programs taught fully online, according to research by Educause, a nonprofit agency that fosters online higher education.
Creighton still is accepting applications for classes to launch in January. Its goal is to enroll up to 36 students in its first group. However, additional students will be admitted as each eight-week term in the accelerated program begins.
Before now, the private Jesuit institution offered select undergraduate courses in an online format, as well as several online graduate degrees, including a doctorate of education in leadership studies. Used as a model for the new bachelor's degree program, the doctorate in education program has grown from 40 students when it launched 2Â years ago to more than 200 in its most recent class.
Many colleges entered the online market by offering advanced degree programs to working adults who don't have the time or the ability to return to campus to pursue a master's degree, even though the additional training would help them gain higher salaries and job promotions.
A growing number now are beginning to offer complete undergraduate degree programs as well.
Bellevue University, for example, was named the nation's top provider of online bachelor's degrees in a ranking earlier this year by U.S. News & World Report. The University of Nebraska Online Worldwide program, which administers online education for all four NU campuses, now includes 114 online degrees, certificates and endorsements, including 20 fully online bachelor's degree programs. NU now enrolls more than 6,000 students who take online classes only.
"It's about access," said Mary Niemiec, NU's associate vice president of distance education and director of the University of Nebraska Online Worldwide. "It's about serving rural Nebraska, it's about serving the working adult, it's about serving the degree completer and the active military student."
Stava said she'd investigated going back to school several times in the past, but the demands of her travel-heavy job schedule always stopped her. Though her company is supportive and provides tuition reimbursement for college courses, Stava said she can't commit to spending several nights each week in a classroom.
She was excited to hear about the new Creighton program because she can participate in class by booting up her laptop in a hotel room wherever she's staying -- whether it's in Chicago or Columbus, Ohio, or Nashville, Tenn. Creighton counselors helped her set up a customized plan by which she should be able to complete her degree within two years, taking two classes at a time in the program's accelerated eight-week terms.
"It just feels so right to me, with what I've done and what I'm seeking to do," she said. "It's a personal goal for me to get my degree."
Bridget Keegan, an English professor and the director of the new bachelor's degree program, said Creighton consulted with major employers in the area to develop a degree program tailored for adults in the workforce.
Coursework involves multiple disciplines, making it career-relevant to students working in a variety of areas, such as education, health care, corporations and nonprofit agencies. Up to 80 credit hours from a student's previous educational experiences can be applied toward the degree, and students also can submit other training and workplace experience for assessment as possible credit.
Though students can start the program without any previous college credit on their transcript, Creighton officials emphasized that the program is designed for adults with at least some work experience and not for 18-year-olds who recently graduated from high school.
Its cost is $400 per credit hour, plus fees, which compares with a cost of about $800 per credit hour for an on-campus undergraduate student.
"It's an affordable way to get a Creighton degree without diminishing the quality," Keegan said.