Degree Program for Older Students Helps Hundreds Finish School

August 12, 2011
August 12, 2011 — Thousands of new University of Virginia undergraduate students will settle in this weekend, most expecting a four-year march to a bachelor's degree.

But for several dozen other fellow undergraduates, the path toward a diploma has taken longer – much longer, in some cases. And there's plenty of room at U.Va. for these older students, too, at the start of another fall semester.

Ten-year U.Va. employee Ruta Vasiukevicius knows well what it takes to finish the course work and graduate. She completed her degree last December through U.Va.'s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program on a path far different from most of her fellow undergraduates.

Before coming to Charlottesville, Vasiukevicius lived and studied in schools in Chicago, Denver, and Socorro, N.M.

Her education has come inside the classroom and out; the veteran of the Facilities Planning and Construction Department was a scholar of Jefferson's historic institution even before she enrolled as a student.

"It's true I know a lot about the physical fabric of the University," she said with a slight chuckle. Vasiukevicius is senior facility information analyst, and she works as the Facilities Planning and Construction's resource center archivist as the reference librarian for the approximately 100,000 architectural and engineering drawings of the University's buildings.

Though she and her husband have two sons in college, she said, smiling, "I have to say, a lot of the kind of extracurricular student life among the 20-year-olds on Grounds is not something I know a lot about."

That statement likely would be echoed by the more than 300 graduates of the unique degree-completion program, which emphasizes part-time evening classes tailored to the schedules of working adults. (Students also may take some traditional daytime courses.)

The program's director, Donna Plasket, expects to add about 70 new students this fall, bringing its overall enrollment to about 340, a record high. The BIS program's first entering class was 18 students in 1999.

Plasket also is an assistant dean with U.Va.'s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, which offers the BIS degree in addition to undergraduate and graduate certificate programs for working professionals. The school also works in cooperation with the Curry School of Education and the School of Engineering and Applied Science to deliver a dozen graduate programs off Grounds. The Darden School of Business and the School of Nursing are also among the schools that permit full-time professionals to enroll for graduate courses.

The BIS program is the preferred path for older undergraduates returning to college. Entering students must have two years of transferable college credit, and must be four years or more past their high school graduation to be eligible.

Students currently take classes at Tidewater and Northern Virginia community colleges and on U.Va. Grounds. Next fall, classes will be offered at U.Va.'s Richmond Center, creating a local opportunity to complete a U.Va. degree for students of the John Tyler and J. Sargeant Reynolds community colleges, as well as for other students in the Richmond area.

Expanding the reach of the BIS program supports U.Va.'s commitment to the statewide "Grow By Degrees" campaign of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. The program, adopted this year by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and the Virginia General Assembly, mandates that the state's colleges and universities significantly increase the number of students earning undergraduate college degrees, specifically targeting adult learners.

U.Va. plans to increase its enrollment target by 1,400 undergraduate and 100 graduate students in the next five years, as part of McDonnell's call to confer 100,000 additional degrees on Virginians statewide over the next 15 years.

Plasket said BIS seeks to give older students – she prefers to call them "mature returning students" – as much as possible of the full educational experience of their daytime, on-Grounds counterparts.

"We do everything we can for them to feel like University of Virginia students, even though their academic life is at a different time and place than everybody else here," she said. Some current students include the statement "Walk the Lawn" in their electronic e-mail signatures as a personal motivation, an affirmation that pleases Plasket.

For the current academic year, in-state tuition for the BIS program is $308 per credit hour, plus a required fee of $201 per term; out-of-state tuition is $1,119 per credit hour, plus a required fee of $259 per term.

For Vasiukevicius, the degree was free. As a full-time U.Va. employee, her college costs were covered by the University through the education benefits package and supplemental funding by her department, she said.

U.Va. employees, after one year of benefits-eligible service, can receive up to $2,000 per year in centrally funded education benefits for tuition and fees, according to Susan Harris, a U.Va. benefits counselor. Departments may choose to contribute to expenses above that amount. If the total of central and departmental education benefits exceeds $5,250 for a calendar year, the amount above that must be taxed, according to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, Harris said.

In addition, a gift to U.Va. from The Bernard Osher Foundation also provides scholarship help for BIS students. Many private companies also offer employee tuition assistance.

Among the long-term instructors in BIS is Leo Daugherty, a Charlottesville resident and author who is professor emeritus of literature and linguistics at Evergreen State College in Washington state.

"BIS is a small but unique and irreplaceable public 'point of light' for the commonwealth and its citizens," said Daugherty, whose most recent book is "The Assassination Of Shakespeare's Patron." "I could tell you countless exemplifying stories about students I've taught here – what BIS did for them, how it helped them, how it changed their lives dramatically for the better."

Teaching in the program "is just pure pleasure, just pure fun," he said.

Vasiukevicius gives high marks to her BIS instructors, including Daugherty. "They were all great, really interesting. There wasn't a single course that I would have said, 'Well, I wouldn't do that if I had it to do over again.'

"I have to say my degree comes at the end of several years of university credit. I'm interested in lots of things and have studied lots of things, and I've moved a lot," said Vasiukevicius, who started the BIS program while in her late 40s.

She intends to enroll in an architectural history class in the fall. "I don't think I've ever entirely stopped going to school," she said.

— By Carl Briggs