Thomas Edison U. Celebrates 50 Years Of Dynamic Leadership in Adult Education
By Donald Gilpin
Thomas Edison State University (TESU), a leader in transforming the lives of its adult students as well as the field of adult education, will be kicking off its 50th anniversary celebrations on Wednesday, December 1, with the initiation of its Edison Speakers Series. TESU celebrates University Day on December 1 each year to commemorate the day the college was granted university status in 2015.
In an era when traditional colleges and universities are being challenged and are forced to question their identities and their role and purpose in society, TESU has been way ahead of the curve from its inception.
According to the resolution that established the school in 1972, it was created “to enable individuals to receive academic recognition for skills and knowledge acquired in a variety of ways and would permit New Jersey residents to complete part or all of their work toward a baccalaureate or associate degree without formal attendance at a campus.”
TESU is one of the state’s public institutions of higher learning funded by the state in the same way as Rutgers, The College of New Jersey, and others, but it is the only public college in the state that is designed specifically for working adults. The average age of its approximately 15,000 students is 34.
Since 1972 TESU has grown from offering correspondence courses and just one associate degree to leadership in online education and more than 100 areas of study with associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. TESU has awarded a total of more than 65,000 degrees.
In a November 29 telephone conversation, TESU President Merodie A. Hancock reflected on the school’s unique past, present, and future. “We were really designed to say ‘Think out of the box,’” she said. “Back in the ’70s there was this movement saying, ‘Wait a minute. We realize that people often learn things outside of the classroom. If they want to go back to college as adults do they have to relearn it all? Can’t we tease out what types of college-level learning they have already undergone and then let them learn only what’s missing?’”
Many people who served in the military, Hancock noted, had taken college courses before being transferred, then were unable to use the credits they had earned. “And they’d start over and over, and they could never get ahead,” she said. “These people who had served their country and others would constantly find themselves back at zero.”
So TESU aimed to stop that and developed what Hancock, who has been TESU president since 2018, described as “a weird model, especially where public education has become more tuition-based. The online model cuts the tuition cost for students. Our model is ‘Let’s look at what you know and let’s figure out what you don’t know,’ and a lot of times what they don’t know is the theory. We have elected officials who don’t have degrees. They certainly understand the working of local governments or state governments, but what they might not understand is the theory that that’s based on.”
Hancock continued, “We can say, ‘Now what you need to learn is the theory, but you have the application. Let’s get right to that piece that’s missing for you.’ Our job has been to cut the cost of education, which I tell the state repeatedly. ‘You need to support Thomas Edison because our job is to save students from having to buy more of our goods.’”
She went on to describe the fundamental contrast between TESU and most colleges and universities. “A traditional student comes in and first and foremost on their minds are academics and a college education, and colleges are trying to organize internships and to fit some real-life experience into their education. But Thomas Edison is the opposite. We have students who often chose to go straight into the work force or into the military and some who had to go straight to work. Whether by desire or need, Thomas Edison students’ career is first. Their profession is first and now they’re looking at bringing in education to accelerate that.”
Hancock emphasized the TESU students’ commitment to earning their education and their degree. “Our students are very aware that they need this degree, that they want this degree, that they want to get everything out of it,” she said. “Both their time and their money are incredibly valuable to them.”
Many TESU students are also working in the field in which they are studying, and, Hancock said, “They hold us accountable for real and relevant information. They want everything they’re paying for with their time and money, and they want the degree. Having the opportunity to get it is huge for them.”
Hancock further stressed the value of that degree. “You’re going to want to be promoted,” she said she tells her students. “And you’re going to want to be promoted into jobs that are not as well defined as the one you were first hired into as an incoming junior person, and that’s when you’re going to be happy you have critical thinking skills, that you’ve learned the fuzzy logic, that you’ve learned to write well, to persuade well, to make a cogent case.”
She continued, “You need to have skills that are resume-relevant, that will help you get your next job, but we also have to make sure that we’re building the whole, that you have that degree that’s going to help you get through and be successful in the long term. A degree matters. It may not matter to you in one certain year of your life, but over a lifetime it matters. It progresses you and makes you a stronger citizen, a stronger employee.
“And we all know the social and economic benefits in job security, retirement and health benefits, citizenry, and longevity of relationships. You can tie numerous benefits to the actual degree beyond just getting the skills.”
TESU is looking ahead to “a new era in talent and economic development” and to continuing to create “relevant academic pathways for successful working adults,” said Hancock, who noted that TESU is partnering with businesses and other organizations and institutions to help them to get their workers on the path towards college degrees.
“We want to continue to open those doors, so the doors to the next stage can open,” she said. The health professions and career ladders there are a particular focus for TESU. “Many people are starting entry level jobs in health care,” said Hancock. “How do we help create career ladders, accelerated pathways to earn nursing degrees?”
She continued, “Thomas Edison was created to help people move up, hard-working people. And we plan to take that to the next level. We’re celebrating our 50th birthday and we’re excited about that.”
At the December 1 Edison Speaker Series event, Hancock will moderate a discussion among three distinguished panelists who will explore the ways top employers are identifying, preparing, and retaining diverse talent for the workforce of today and tomorrow. The public is invited to join the virtual event via Zoom at 10 a.m. Visit tesu.edu for details and registration.