Elizabeth Balabayev’s (LPS ’21) college career began before many of her Penn classmates were even born.
In 1998, Elizabeth started at Temple University, her heart set on pursuing a theater degree. But by 2000, she had gotten married, had her first child, and ultimately decided to drop out.
Finishing her degree was no longer a priority.
Elizabeth promised herself that she would one day go back to school. But time passed. She was busy raising three kids, one of whom had been diagnosed with autism. Her days were a bustle of tying shoes, making breakfast, and helping with homework. Going back to college just didn’t fit into the rhythm of her life.
But as her youngest child started middle school, Elizabeth was struck with a sense that something was missing from her life. “It just always pulled on me that I hadn’t finished college,” she says.
Elizabeth started taking classes at the Community College of Philadelphia to pursue a business degree. She quickly realized her heart was still in the humanities. It was in a basement theater class that she found the flyer for Penn’s Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS) Bachelor of Arts program, an on–campus degree–granting program for nontraditional students. That same day, on her way home, another advertisement for LPS blared on her usual NPR station. There was no denying it was a sign.
Next thing she knew, Elizabeth was sitting in an LPS info session. All her energy soon went into getting straight A’s in her community college courses and writing her Penn application. She was accepted, and by the spring of 2018, she was taking classes on Penn’s campus. She quickly found a home at Penn, immersing herself in its architecture, its libraries, its history. She loved going to her playwriting class, which culminated in a live staging of her piece; having lunch with her professors at the University Club; and attending weekly Russian teas to practice her speaking skills. She was finally getting the college experience she had dreamed of. “It was incredibly exciting, incredibly validating,” says Elizabeth.
But soon, the LPS program that gave Elizabeth this on–campus experience will no longer exist. Penn admitted its last group of in–person LPS B.A. students in the spring of 2020. While students like Elizabeth who started before the program moved online are allowed to finish their degrees on campus, they are now remnants of a bygone program, as Penn phases out the on–campus experience with a fully online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences, or BAAS, degree program.
While the new program caters to working adults who may not have time to come to campus, it erases the core of the LPS program: an opportunity for nontraditional students to get an on–campus experience, a liberal arts education and access to extracurriculars with traditional students who started college right out of high school. No longer will LPS students be able to choose from the same variety of majors or engage with undergraduates and faculty on campus. Instead, the program will be reduced to online modules. As the few remaining students in the LPS program complete their degrees, their presence on Penn’s campus will slowly fade from memory.
Penn’s LPS program traces its roots back to 1894, when the program was known as “College Courses for Teachers” (CCT). In the years after the Civil War, highly trained teachers were in great demand as American education expanded. In response, Penn began offering evening and weekend courses for teachers to continue their education and broaden their skills and expertise.
Penn’s CCT program was highly innovative for its era in intentionally bringing women to campus. “It was actually one of the first divisions of Penn to fully accept women,” explains Kristine Rabberman, assistant vice dean and director of academic affairs for professional and liberal education.
By the early 20th century, CCT expanded from a teacher training program to coursework that counted toward bachelor’s degrees for any professional managing a part–time schedule. It was renamed “College Collateral Courses,” or CCC, and courses were mixed with some of the classes offered to traditional students in the College of Arts and Sciences.
In 2008, the program was again renamed to the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, establishing itself as a division of the College, and it increasingly aligned with the traditional College curriculum. LPS students could choose between the same majors as students in the College, and they would graduate with the same degree as a traditional residential student.
Now, the program has undergone its latest transformation. With the move to an online applied B.A. program, it will be the first time in over 100 years that Penn doesn’t offer undergraduate courses on campus to “nontraditional” students, a catch–all term for part–time students or those who didn’t matriculate to college directly from high school. The BAAS program will now limit students to eight “concentrations,” each with a set of modules, all in an online, partially synchronous, partially asynchronous format.
“That ‘applied’ is intentional,” says Nora Lewis, vice dean for professional and liberal education. “There is an intentional element of application to the world outside the degree program to how that content is relevant to things that employers are looking for, to how you might use the information in the workplace, or to support work in different fields.”
“Only 30% of adults over 25 in this country have a bachelor's degree. And so it's all about how you meet that need. And I think online learning helps us do that,” says Lewis. Penn is the first Ivy League school to cater to that audience. It’s innovative, pragmatic, and like it or not, the reality of the modern American higher education landscape.
“When we think about undergraduate education, we think, residential, four years, march it through,” says Kathy Urban, director of undergraduate programs for LPS and the LPS contact for veterans and military–affiliated students. “Actually, the residential experience for full–time students is not the majority experience for undergraduates across the United States.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 70% of undergraduate students in the United States have at least one "nontraditional" characteristic, which includes attending school part time, being employed full time, or having one or more dependents.
Even though the LPS BAAS program lacks the magic of an on–campus experience, it’s had promising feedback from some students enrolled in the program. “They absolutely love the courses and love the engagement with faculty, which I think is really high praise in an online environment,” says Urban.
Mark Sudell (LPS '22) is one of those students. He’s embraced the opportunity of the new degree program.
“My educational career wasn’t a storybook education.” He graduated high school in 1998, started community college, but had to drop out. He got an entry–level job in an immunology lab at Penn.
“I was constantly surrounded by the smartest people in the world,” he says.
He finished his associate’s degree in 2012 while he continued to work, got married, and started a family. He knew he wanted to go back to school to move up in his career, and he couldn’t think of any place better than Penn. After applying to the LPS program a few times, he was eventually accepted in 2017.
But when Penn initiated BAAS, Mark transferred out of the LPS B.A. program to take advantage of the fully online program. “I was a little hesitant,” he says. “But it ended up being one of the best things I’ve ever done.” It was around that time, in 2019, that he also decided to quit his job at Penn, where he had amassed 22 years. He’s now concentrating in organizational studies, a professional course path unique to the BAAS program.
“I can’t say enough good things about [the BAAS] program,” he says. “It’s teaching me to be a manager.”
Mark has aspirations of working in human resources, and hopes to uplift other people in their own career paths. That takes a set of skills he wouldn’t have gotten from courses in a traditional undergraduate setting. He’s now more comfortable talking to people in front of a camera, something he attributes to the self–paced yet interactive nature of BAAS’s online courses. He’s on track to graduate by the spring of 2022.
Although Mark’s experience with the new BAAS format was positive, online programs are far from perfect. Numerous studies have demonstrated that students simply don’t perform as well in virtual classes. And fully online programs have also been shown to reinforce existing socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps, with lower retention and graduation rates than programs with in–person options. While Penn’s program isn’t for–profit like notorious online powerhouse the University of Phoenix and is more selective than its nonprofit counterpart Liberty University, it still raises questions about what a Penn degree means without the on–campus experience.
Lewis emphasizes that what makes the BAAS program different from other online undergraduate degree programs is the quality of the academics. The courses are designed and taught by the same Penn faculty who teach on–campus undergraduate courses.
But can you really package the experience of an Ivy League education into online modules and asynchronous videos?
Shehroz Malik (LPS '21) doesn’t think so. In addition to being a student in the LPS B.A. program, Shehroz is a teaching assistant for a BAAS class, DATA 101. “It’s very pragmatic,” he says. “It’s almost like a trade school equivalent, where it just gives you the skills to analyze data.” Shehroz compares it to a course he took in person at Penn in the Political Science Department, "Introduction to Data Science," which taught him the same skills as DATA 101, but also gave him access to professors who connected it to their real–world research. “I see a lot of disparities in the way these classes are taught,” he says.
In his opinion, the elimination of the B.A. and introduction of the BAAS program is just a way to package a Penn education and sell it to people looking for degrees. He doubts that employers will view a BAAS degree from Penn in the same way they would view a B.A. from Penn’s traditional undergraduate programs.
“They’re trying to expand their student pool, offer their knowledge to as many people as possible. But is that kind of mass–produced knowledge really the best the University has to offer?” says Shehroz.
College wasn’t a possibility for Shehroz coming out of high school. He graduated with a GPA of 2.2. To support his family, he enlisted in the Army. After three and a half years of active duty, he left the military in 2016. Even without a degree, he was able to leverage some of his skills from the military into a job in a laboratory. He bounced around to different internships and jobs, even doing back office work for consulting firms, where he’d cross paths with bright–eyed interns from Penn. But without a college degree, it was hard to advance in his career. Then he found LPS and enrolled while maintaining a full–time job.
In addition to being part of the Penn Pakistan Society and Penn’s Public Interest Research Group, Shehroz currently leads Penn’s Student Veteran Association. LPS’ B.A. program used to serve a significant number of veterans, but now Shehroz only knows three other undergraduate veterans at Penn, as they’re pushed toward LPS’ online programming.
“Penn is really losing out on the experience [veterans] bring to campus,” he says. While other Ivy League schools like Harvard and Princeton have significant veteran populations in their undergraduate programs, veterans have a marginalized place on Penn’s campus. Soon, with the end of the in–person LPS program, he fears a veteran presence may not exist on campus at all, something he hopes to lobby to change before he graduates in December 2021.
Even as a Philly native, Jessica Gooding (LPS '21) didn’t realize an Ivy League school was just a few miles from where she grew up. Neither of her parents went to college, so the idea of her going to university wasn’t even on the table. From high school, she trained to be a paralegal, got her foot in the door at a law firm, and worked as a file clerk and paralegal for six years. But she realized her heart was really set on becoming a lawyer.
It was a story she heard about Barack Obama that inspired Jessica to seek an Ivy League degree. Though a Columbia University alumnus, he wasn’t always a member of the Ivy League. He transferred to Columbia after his sophomore year at Occidental College, a small school in California. “All I could think was, ‘Wow, how do you do that? How do you go from a regular college student to the Ivy League?’”
After some research, she found herself on Penn’s campus at an LPS info session. It was Urban who convinced her of the value of an on–campus experience for nontraditional undergraduates. Urban emphasized that what set Penn apart from programs at peer schools like Harvard Extension School and Columbia’s School of General Studies was that the LPS program gave students the same degree as any other undergraduate. Jessica knew it was where she was meant to be. She took some liberal arts classes at the Community College of Philadelphia, applied to transfer into the LPS program, and by the fall of 2018, she was a full–fledged Penn student.
Jessica’s name might be familiar—she's an Opinion writer for The Daily Pennsylvanian, writing her column “Wanna Be a Baller” since her second year at Penn. But she’s also deeply involved in other student groups on campus: the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, Beyond Arrests: Rethinking Systematic Oppression, the Penn Women’s Center, and the Penn Family Center. After she graduates this year, she’ll also be working with the Liberation Foundation on Project HOPE, which won this year’s President’s Engagement Prize—all while balancing her job as a paralegal and being a full–time mom to her sons.
“I've done amazing things, things that I never could dream of, which just hits back to the same thing that Kathy said that day [at the LPS info session.] She said, ‘You never know what you'll be able to do. So don't come here with a plan.’ And I really wish that more people could come to Penn without a plan. I absolutely would not have had these opportunities if I was doing some online program,” says Jessica.
Benjamin Bond (LPS '21) also can’t imagine his Penn experience without stepping foot on Locust Walk.
“I wouldn’t have gone to Penn if it were all online,” he says.
He dropped out of high school during his senior year to get a full–time job and support his family. He later got his GED and started taking community college classes. He was thriving at school, had a high GPA, and when several of his professors took notice of his knack for writing, he set his sites on transferring to a four–year undergraduate program. He applied to Penn, got in, and was on campus full–time by the fall of 2019.
Benjamin is now a double major in English and East Asian languages and civilizations and the undergraduate chair of the English Department’s student advisory board. He says he found his place at Penn, but he’s never quite felt like a regular student. “There’s a shadow lurking in the background that I’m an LPS student, an asterisk after my name,” he says.
When he started at Penn in the fall of 2019, he learned that his class would be one of the last classes of LPS students Penn would be admitting to the in–person program. The program ending was yet another sign that Penn as an institution didn’t consider him a ‘real’ undergraduate.
“What disappointed me most about the program ending was that I wouldn’t be able to encourage other people I knew to enroll,” says Benjamin. He had dreams of establishing a relationship between local community colleges and Penn so that others could follow his path. That’s no longer an option.
Similar to Benjamin, Catherine Gurr (LPS '20) was around the same age as traditional undergraduate when she first started at Penn in 2013. As an aspiring ballerina, a traditional college experience was never a part of her plan, but her parents wanted her to get a degree.
“Ballet is a very fragile career,” she says. “It made sense to have other options.”
She had done a year at the Community College of Philadelphia as she continued her ballet training, but she decided to transfer into the LPS program at Penn, where her older brother was a traditional undergraduate. She continued to pursue a career as a professional ballerina while taking courses. As she took more English courses, she fell in love with comparative literature, which became her major. “I didn’t even know that existed. I wouldn't have known it had existed if it weren’t for talking with my professors,” says Catherine.
With the new BAAS program, comparative literature won’t be an option for LPS students. The closest area of study in the new program is a concentration in “creative studies,” which combines English, creative writing, and cinema studies classes.
Though she’s from Philadelphia and lived with her parents while attending classes at Penn, Catherine’s ballet career took her to the United Kingdom, then Salt Lake City, then New York. She took several semesters off, and though the majority of classes she took were on campus, she also took online classes to complete her degree. That balance worked for her, even if her degree took seven years to complete. She made a lot of friends with other LPS students, especially fellow dancers who were also finishing their degrees while balancing their budding careers. Catherine’s time as an undergraduate was far from traditional, but coming to campus for classes did give her some semblance of a normal experience.
“I definitely felt like I was a part of the Penn community—just being on campus, having access to the libraries, I felt like I had some sort of undergraduate experience,” says Catherine. “It’s a shame that there won’t be interaction between traditional and nontraditional students anymore. It’s easy to get caught up in the Penn bubble. It enriches everyone’s experiences to have people with a diverse array of experiences in a class. I learned a lot from traditional Penn students. But they also learned a lot from me.”
“Our [LPS] audience from the beginning has always been working adults. And so in thinking about BAAS and why we created it, it was very intentionally thinking about this audience whose primary identity is not to be a student,” says Lewis.
But for Benjamin, being a student is at the core of his identity, even if he’s nontraditional. He’ll be going to University of Colorado Boulder in the fall for a master’s program in Chinese studies, with a full–ride, stipend, and TA–ship. He ultimately hopes to become a professor.
“[LPS students] may be a small community, but I think we're a great community full of very bright students who didn't have a traditional path to college. And we're fortunate enough to have gotten into Penn. My time at Penn has been amazing,” he says.
Jessica, too, can’t separate herself from her identity as a Penn student. “I really wish more people could come to Penn and find the kind of success I did. It’s priceless. There’s no way to put it into words,” says Jessica.
LPS students, like all Penn students, have multiple identities: They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, veterans, dancers, activists, actors, writers, scholars, and people who have embraced an on–campus college experience, even if their paths there were unconventional.
“I think being on campus was one of the most integral parts of my college experience,” says Benjamin. He owns his LPS identity, even if it can feel like some tag meant to differentiate him from other undergraduates.
Though it's frustrating to see a program that so enriched Elizabeth's life come to an end, she cherishes her memories of Penn.
“Lots of people don’t get the idealized college experience,” she says. “I feel incredibly grateful that I got to go to Penn. I feel extremely lucky that I have this degree, and I’ll always have it.”