For the VUL, PhD programs are a “lifeline” during a pandemic

While many colleges and universities struggled during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, doctoral programs at Virginia University of Lynchburg have seen growth.

The number of PhD programs grew from 41 students in 2019-2020 to 102 students in 2020-2021 and to 462 students in 2021-2022.

During that time, the total student enrollment at the private, historically black university headquartered on Garfield Avenue increased from 327 to 768, or almost 135%. Doctoral students now make up 60% of the university’s total, according to enrollment figures released by VUL in October.

“Our graduate programs have really been a lifeline for us and have done a wonderful job of advancing us here at this institution,” said James Coleman, faculty chair and dean of the Leonard N. Smith School of Religion.

VUL has two doctoral programs – Doctor of Ministry at the Leonard N. Smith School of Religion and Doctor of Health Administration at the School of Business.

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According to the university, the health administration degree currently has 335 students.

It is a one-year, three-semester, 36-credit program, with each semester consisting of two eight-week courses coupled with one 15-week course. The semesters begin on the first Monday in January, the first Monday in May and the first Monday in September.

The first semester of the program started in September 2020, according to Rex Hammond, Dean of the School of Business and Professional Studies.

Hammond said in an interview the idea for the program came about during the pandemic. At the time, then-Governor Ralph Northam announced the closure of public schools and nonessential businesses.

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Classes were suspended on March 12 this year, with plans to resume virtually on March 23, according to the university’s website.

Hammond, who started working for the university in early March, said he and his staff had begun researching possible online programs they thought would appeal to students since the college closed.

He said the university has never had an online-only offering.

The program received the green light in July, began commercialization and welcomed its first cohort in September.

Hammond said VUL must receive approval from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, or TRACS, and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).

He said it was very important to get that endorsement and recognition because “people wanted to believe that this was a legitimate program that would improve the trajectory of their lives and careers.”

Hammond described the process as a “whirlwind”.

“I mean, doing that in higher education, that doesn’t happen. In fact, I’ve had just enough experience with higher education to know that in terms of speed and the development of an initiation concept, that’s almost impossible,” Hammond said.

Hammond said they hoped the students would be able to do better in their current job, become more attractive for promotion and give them the opportunity to integrate into the healthcare industry and develop strong credentials.

He said the program exceeded the university’s expectations.

Jaime McCoy, recruitment coordinator for the health administration program, said the program typically accepts about 140 to 180 students from about 300 applicants per cohort, with three cohorts per year.

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McCoy works with prospective students and applicants throughout the year, and she said it’s been tremendous to see the overall growth of the program.

“It’s just amazing to see how it’s grown in such a short amount of time,” McCoy said.

Hammond said the program’s growth has been “absolutely stunning because we’ve worked really hard to make so much progress in such a short amount of time.”

Meanwhile, Coleman said the department’s doctoral program has had more than 100 graduates since its inception in 2004 under former President Ralph Reavis.

It is a three-year program of eight semesters with a minimum of 63 total hours required.

There are three semesters in the first year, three semesters in the second year and two semesters in the senior year with a focus on a dissertation.

When asked if the programs, particularly the health administration program, have helped the university navigate through the pandemic, Coleman said there were “no ifs, ands, or buts.”

“The graduate program has definitely contributed to the continued well-being and vibrancy of the university as we strive to support the President [Kathy] Franklin’s vision,” added Coleman.

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