Online college for union members in the works

Education experts say more web-based colleges are needed to meet growing demand.
Education experts say more web-based colleges are needed to meet growing demand.

The National Labor College will make about 20 online courses available for the AFL-CIO’s 11.5 million members next fall in an effort to help workers adapt to a job market that increasingly requires higher education.

The online school, tentatively named the College for Working Families, will be built with resources from the Princeton Review, a national educational support services provider, said William Scheuerman, president of the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Labor College.

The Labor College and the AFL-CIO will distribute a questionnaire in the coming weeks that will gauge members’ interest in which classes will be available in the fall.

Scheuerman said creating the College for Working Families was in part a response to the unprecedented demand for college education while many Americans are unemployed or underemployed.

The web-based college will charge about $200 per credit, he said. Officials aren’t sure how many students will enroll for the fall semester, but Scheuerman said the college projects 30,000 students by 2015.

Course selection likely will focus on technology, business, health care, and other industries that require more than a high school education, college officials said.

“It’s an economy that requires brain power more than it requires muscle power,” Scheuerman said, adding that union members’ immediate family members will be able to enroll in the new online program as well.

Penn Foster Education Group—bought by the Princeton Review for $170 million in December—will build the new college’s technical infrastructure.

Penn Foster is one of the country’s oldest and largest distance learning providers, and the company’s background in educating coal miners through correspondence programs meshed with the Labor College’s mission, Scheuerman said.

“Their culture fits pretty nicely with ours,” he said.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said the online courses will help union members supplement industry-sponsored training programs.

“In the course of their work, union members gain a wealth of knowledge,” Trumka said. “The College for Working Families will be able to leverage an intimate understanding of the nation’s organized workers to provide efficient, effective programs leading to a range of academic degrees that will support the increasing need of working men and women and their families to expand their knowledge in an affordable and accessible manner.”

Online education advocates said the labor movement’s plans for a new college likely will be well received, as demand for more higher-education opportunities is growing. Community college enrollment has soared since 2008, when the economic downturn drove millions back to school to improve resumes while they were out of work.

Bringing weekend classes to Portland Community College’s four campuses in 2007 has paid dividends this year as the economic downturn has spurred a 21-percent enrollment jump.

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