Houghton College’s Distance Education Program A Vibrant Online Community Built On A Relevant Christ-Centered Education

Dr Shirley Mullen, President of Houghton College
Dr Shirley Mullen, President of Houghton College

Houghton CollegeBy Rick Kern

It is among the most engaging, yet revolutionary equations for success in every good sense of the word… When you take quality academics plus a comfortable, convenient learning environment, factor in affordability, accreditation, and a Christ-centered program it all adds up to an exceptional higher education package. And while that may seem like an abbreviated description, it is the perfect illustration of Houghton College’s Distance Education Program (DEP).

“Our online programs are designed for the adult learner who desires to study their field or find a new occupation in a Christian setting,” notes Dr. Marlene Collins-Blair, the school’s Dean of Distance Education. It is a vision that, while maturing, has not strayed from Houghton’s unassuming yet purposeful beginnings as crafted by its founder.

Born in 1825 in a modest log home, Willard J. Houghton spent his childhood on the plateau overlooking the Genesee River Valley where the college that bears his name now stands. 1883 was a marquee year for Houghton for it found the 58-year old establishing the academic institution that became his enduring namesake.

Houghton’s passion was to provide higher learning in a Christian context and the school has been profoundly impacting lives academically, spiritually, and morally ever since its creation. And while their programs have molded the professional lives and destinies of countless students, they have also shaped the tenor of their times.

For example, Distance Education Enrollment Coordinator Casey Conklin recalls, “What’s really interesting is that the town of Houghton used to be sort of known as a gambling town and it really didn’t have the best reputation — it’s just so interesting.” She continues, “God really took Willard J. Houghton’s vision and mission and turned it into what Houghton College is today — a place to really empower young people to go out and serve the world for Christ.”

While Houghton is predominately known for its residential brick-and-mortar campus, the school’s expansion into fully online degree programs five-years ago offers its superior education to learners seeking greater flexibility. Whether they need to study outside of their work schedule, are stay-at-home parents, or just desire a non-residential college experience, Houghton’s DEP has been helping its students navigate the nuances of life for many years.

While the Distance Education Program is really just an outgrowth of the college itself, it has in effect, been up and running for decades, in as much as its roots reach back in to what was originally called the Pace Program. “The online programs were actually based out of a program that has been around for over 30-years,” Conklin explains. “The program itself was originally a face-to-face program in which we offered a one-night-a-week course all across western New York. Still, the core of the program and the mission of that program remain the same.”

Though academic approaches have grown more innovative and complex, transforming education with groundbreaking technologies that move to the rhythm of the times, the divine imperative shaping distance education with a Christian mandate remains enduring and deeply spiritual. Both Pace and DEP rest on the same unmovable bedrock even though 30 long years have passed.

“You have to think about the approach Houghton really takes to all programs,” says Conklin, “which is, we have to train up our students function from a Christian perspective and with Christ at the center of what they do, in a non-Christian world.” She continues, “Being able to offer a Houghton education, specifically a Christ-centered education, to people that would not normally be able to attend and participate as a traditional campus student we decided to move to online because we wanted to be able to serve an even broader population of individuals across the nation.”

And in its pursuit of serving that broader population, Houghton’s educational expansion has found itself rising to Christ’s mandate in Mark 16:15 in its own unique way, “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’” Conklin elaborates, “We also are able to offer the program internationally, we do have a handful of international students who participate. So that is the primary reason that we switched to online, was to again, be able to broaden the population beyond the western New York area.”

Their foray into the Great Commission includes students from some 14 states and Canada, and there have also been several online students who are U.S. citizens but who are serving or have served abroad as missionaries in both Asia and Africa while enrolled in the program.

The breadth of the program lends itself to shaping a Christian perspective and worldview, thus preparing the student to compete in the marketplace of ideas and bringing light into an arena often obscured by darkness. “You have to think about the approach Houghton really takes to all programs,” says Conklin, “which is, we have to train up our students to function from a Christian perspective and with Christ at the center of what they do, in a non-Christian world.” She continues, “It’s taking God’s Word and then applying it to whatever you feel you’re into and whatever our students may encounter and having that inform the way that they interact in the workplace, decisions that they make, it’s a really critical component to the business world, but any of the major fields that we offer in any of our programs.”

Presently, Houghton’s online degree programs are fully accredited and vetted through New York State and by Middle States as well, using the same accrediting agency that the SUNY system uses. “In the northeast,” observes Casey, “if any of our students wanted to stay true to the institution, they should have no problem transferring our courses. It’s because all of our programs at Houghton being accredited by one of the big seven, Middle States.”

“And because of that,” she goes on, “our graduate success placement is exceptional after Houghton. Actually this is a statistic that we like to share. We just surveyed the graduating class of 2015 and within six-months of graduating, 100 percent of our graduates were employed or in graduate school. That’s for our online degree programs.”

Houghton offers six different fully online degree programs. Four fall within the business field, one is a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, while the sixth is an Associate’s Degree, which would generally be considered a two-year program. However, it usually takes students 15 to 18 months to complete the Associates program so it is not a stretch to consider it an accelerated program. According to Conklin, however, the rigorous pace is not unique to the Associate’s Degree. “I can also speak to the timelines for each of these programs,” she says emphatically, “They’re definitely considered accelerated programs.”

The format of each class is unique to the individual program and can include a combination of reading, recorded video lectures, support sessions via Skype or Google chat, and/or pre-set online instructional content. Structurally, the online program features three semesters per year with sessions scheduled in the fall, spring, and summer.

Houghton’s DEP has enjoyed a considerable degree of success, so much so that plans are underway to expand the program. “We have plans to expand the online program and are currently looking at several programs of graduate study,” says Conklin. “Houghton was approved last year to offer an M.B.A. that will be fully online and that is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2019.” Continuing she explains, “That will be the first of several graduate programs that Houghton intends to roll in the next ten-years online.”

Houghton College’s Distance Education Program may be 100 percent online, but graduates participate in the commencement program on the main campus with the rest of the student body. “They actually graduate within the department that their program is from,” explains Ms. Conklin. “Business students will actually walk with our business students on the main campus as well. For us, we say, One Houghton.’ Whether you’re in Buffalo or Utica, it is Houghton College and it is considered the same caliber, the same level of excellence as you would receive on our main campus.”

That quality was acknowledged in a big way not long ago as Houghton found itself awarded for being in the Top 25 Best Online Universities and Colleges. “Houghton College’s online degree programs were lauded recently by Christian Universities Online (CUO),” says Conklin, “which included the college in its list of Top 25 Online Christian Colleges and Universities.”

And while those types of accolades from their colleagues are deeply meaningful, Houghton makes every effort to stay true to the faith they were founded on, applying the Bible to all of life. “Like I mentioned,” Casey reiterates passionately, “our faith is really infused into every aspect of the program so really delving into Scripture and determining how our faith forms what it is they’re studying in particular is key.” She goes on, “I can really only comment broadly because we offer so many different programs. It applies differently depending on what field the students are working in.”

Celebrated for its principally conventional campus, Houghton’s expansion into the addition of a fully online degree format integrates its superior education with learners needing greater flexibility and innovation. Whether they need to navigate a full-time job schedule and study in the evenings, are stay-at-home parents, or are simply looking for the academic dexterity of a non-residential college experience — Houghton’s DEP has it!

In the last analysis, simply stated, the “true north” of Houghton College’s Distance Education Program is none other than their mission statement, “At Houghton College, we prepare our students to become global contributors empowered by a challenging education taught in a vibrant online community and grounded in a relevant Christ-centered context.”

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