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With online degree programs, the College of Business is keeping the classroom in reach

By Tom Lotshaw
shawna delong

After earning a degree in business administration and law, Shawna DeLong now owns her own cleaning business in Jackson County.

Western Carolina University’s College of Business is offering a growing number of undergraduate degree programs online. People are signing up and benefiting from a convenient, off-campus option to gain skills.

“It was a wonderful experience. Ten out of 10,” said Alaine Hunnicutt, a Mooresville resident who graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and law through one of WCU’s online programs.

Hunnicutt said she worked in the banking industry for more than a decade. But without a degree, she saw little room for career growth or advancement in her future. She wanted to change that.

“It made it so convenient for me,” Hunnicutt said of the online degree program. “It opened up so many opportunities I would not have had otherwise.”

alaine hunnicutt

Alaine Hunnicutt

Hunnicutt has since changed careers. She’s now working as the director of compliance and finance for a national insurance network. Aiming to keep her opportunities expanding, she also enrolled in another online program WCU offers to earn a master’s degree in human resources.

“Anyone can do it, as long as you’re willing to work hard,” Hunnicutt said of going back to school through the online programs.

AJ Grube, the dean of WCU’s College of Business, said the goal behind the online degree programs is simple: Make the quality, affordable education that WCU is known for more accessible for everyone — including working adults and nontraditional students.

“Distance learning is helping tremendously with accessibility and affordability,” Grube said. “Students have the flexibility of staying where they are, keeping their jobs and keeping their family life going. And they get the same high-quality education as on-campus students. It plays a huge part in allowing us to offer an education to people who otherwise might not be able to drop everything and come to class in Cullowhee.”

Briana Capps, who lives in Canton, enrolled in the online business administration and law program. She wanted to earn a bachelor’s degree that she started a decade ago but never finished, and to build upon an associate’s degree she had earned in the meanwhile, hoping it would help open better career opportunities.

Briana Capps

Briana Capps

“Part of the attraction was I could work full time and still go back to school. It opens up the ability to do that,” Capps said about the program. She finished the degree program last year and has since started a new career in human resources. It pays more and allows her to spend more quality time with her husband and daughter.

Jackson County resident Shawna DeLong graduated with a history degree in 2010, but was working in retail and wanted to change her career trajectory. She also wanted to keep working and to keep growing her young family with her husband.

DeLong said the business administration and law program allowed her to do all those things. She finished the program last winter. Along the way she started a cleaning business, Krystal Clean LLC, and had a second child, with a third child now on the way.

“Now I know I have the blocks in place to advance,” DeLong said of her new degree. “My future is looking pretty good right now.”

Enrollment in WCU’s online degree programs has grown significantly over the last few years, to almost 2,700 students.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in these programs,” said Tony Miller, associate director of distance learning. “We’re a residential, campus-based university. But part of serving our region is serving working adults. Without a remote option, it’s almost impossible to do that.”

As one of four NC Promise schools in North Carolina, WCU’s online degree programs also broaden its reach for undergraduate students. Tuition is capped at $500 per semester for in-state students and $2,500 per semester for out-of-state students.

WCU’s College of Business launched the business administration and law degree program online in 2015, complementing its online degree program for innovation leadership and entrepreneurship.

Professor Lorrie Willey pushed for and organized the initiative, which saw rapid student enrollment growth. “It was off the bat an incredibly successful program,” Willey said.

Last fall, the College of Business started offering an online option for students to earn a bachelor’s degree in finance, with a concentration in financial planning. The program qualifies graduates to take the certified financial planner exam. Enrollment in the program doubled this spring.

More online business degree programs are in the pipeline, Grube said. A management program and a marketing program will both start online this fall.

Theresa Cruz Paul, the director of the Center for Career and Professional Development, thinks demand for online degree programs will only continue to grow. The center helps advise students enrolled at WCU — including online students — and helps connect them with career opportunities through a national network of employers.

“Coming out of the pandemic, people rethinking their lives and where they’re moving in their careers has been a big theme through all of this,” Cruz Paul said. “With WCU meeting that need and building these online programs, I think that’s going to help more people see they can be an adult and still come back to school and do these things, see they have access to services they didn’t traditionally think they had access to.”

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