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Criminology Online Degree Program Sets the Standard

When prospective students consider earning their Master of Advanced Study in Criminology, Law and Society (MAS) online from UC Irvine, their greatest reservation is always the same: Will the degree say “online?”

When Adrianna Lopez, the assistant Director of MAS, says the degree will look exactly like an on-campus one, free from the nomenclatural stigma that accompanies most online degrees, the students’ fears are assuaged.

The program, preparing for its ten year anniversary celebration on March 12, is a model in a time when higher education is more fiscally endangered than ever. MAS is cheaper for students, administratively cost-effective and, as graduates are discovering, well-respected in the professional world. Such attributes are increasingly prompting other schools on campus and throughout the UC system to begin developing online programs.

MAS began over a decade ago with a $450,000 loan for development costs associated with the online program. MAS Director Dr. Henry Pontell said the loan, which was given by the Executive Vice Chancellor’s Office, saved the program “millions of dollars.”

“There was a risk that they were taking with us,” Pontell said. “But this is after we developed the full proposal, did all the numbers and showed them the marketing. They said it was a worthy experiment.”

The loan was repaid in three years and MAS now runs a budget surplus. Last year’s ran at $298,024. Half is kept in the program; half is sent to Office of the Dean of Social Ecology, an agreement set in place with the original loan. Extra revenue kept in Criminology, Law and Society is used to fund several doctoral candidates and faculty research.

Despite its low cost, the two-year program isn’t run entirely online. It begins with a one week, face-to-face class in early September, where students are acquainted with faculty and each other. From there, they are required to take two online courses each quarter for six quarters.

The program does not offer multiple choice exams. Instead, students generally complete written exams and papers. Like many on-campus courses, students also post messages on discussion boards related to any required reading throughout the quarter.

One reason for the face-to-face interaction in September is to help prevent plagiarism, which is a serious concern for many online degree programs. Lopez contends MAS’ rate of academic dishonesty is low, commensurate with levels seen at the physical campus.

By the end of the week-long program “you already have an idea about the student’s background, how they write and their education level,” Lopez said. Such familiarity — the program now has 64 students, up from 17 in its first year — makes it easy to catch students who may turn in work they didn’t produce.

Many of the program’s students have gone on to successful careers in the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and local police forces, among other places. (One alumnus, Gerald Roy, is a high-ranking official in the United States Health and Human Services Department.)

The program is mostly filled with working professionals, some of whom have been out of academia for decades and seek promotions or new opportunities that come with an advanced degree.

Current MAS student Robert Clendening said he was “nervous” about getting back into academia after being away for over 20 years, but that the program was designed to accommodate students like him, who manage full-time work on top of their classes.

And for students working, there’s little time for technical errors.

There were “a few glitches but nothing earth shattering,” Clendening said, describing the online program.

Christine Champion, an MAS alumna and current PhD candidate at UC Irvine, said the program’s students maintained a relationship with the technical director, whom they met during the one week in-person classes.

Given the program’s high demands — Clendening said it could get “taxing” — the support is critical, and likely a reason for the program’s 93 percent graduation rate.

The program is now being used as a model at UC Irvine — and potentially across the UC system.

“Many campuses and programs have inquired about our model,” Lopez said.

Dr. Diana Krause, an adjunct professor at UCI’s Department of Pharmacology, described the MAS program as “a pioneer in the online approach.”

“The Department of Pharmacology is currently working with Graduate Dean Frances Leslie and her office to develop our proposal for a self-supporting online Masters in Pharmacology program,” she said.

And now, 10 years in, Dr. Pontell is nothing but proud of the model he and his team created.

Looking back, he said, the biggest challenge was overcoming skepticism that some faculty and committees had in online programs.

“The New York City thing really came in handy,” he said. “I had to do a lot of talking.”