Online program wins student aid approval, readies for growth phase
NEW YORK – Sessions College For Professional Design President Gordon Drummond barely had time to respond to an email.
“Sorry for the late reply. Our school was approved yesterday to join the federal student aid system, so we are busy to say the least,” Drummond wrote in early January.
The approval by the U.S. Department of Education is “a very important step,” he said in a later phone call, because it means Sessions degree students are now eligible for Pell grants, direct loans, PLUS loans and other sources of tuition funds.
“It’s going to be a cornerstone of our growth, and that’s why we worked so hard to get it,” he said, noting the process had taken a year and a half.
“At one time, it was relatively easy for students to access sources of educational funding even without federal student aid,” CEO Doris Granatowski said. “But much of that dried up, or the underwriting became much different, after 2008-09.”
Only about 6 percent of Sessions students are enrolled in the degree programs now, but “we expect those numbers to change dramatically, percentagewise, for the next several years,” said Granatowski. “That’s our growth plan, our degree programs.”
The online school (www.sessions.edu) has about 1,100 students enrolled in classes and certificate programs in graphic design, web design, digital arts, marketing design, video game art and more. For the last two years, it has also offered associate’s degrees in graphic design, web design and digital media (video, animation and 3D modeling). Enrollment jumped 18 percent last year in part because of that, she said.
And talk about distance learning: Sessions’ administration is in Manhattan. Offices such as admissions and student services are in Tempe, Ariz. The education department is in Massachusetts. The faculty is all over the country, and the students live and study around the globe.
But Sessions thrives by bringing together students from around the nation and world with instructors and classes that can help them grow professionally.
“The online environment has been a wonderful tool for me,” student Erin Ramsdale, 27, of Sicamous, British Columbia, said via email. “I live in a small, rural area, and design school choices are limited. With Sessions, I am able to gain a well-rounded design education from home.”
The majority of students are working adults looking to make a career change or advancement, and the student body is more than 60 percent female.
Ramsdale earned an associate’s degree in web design last year, and she is now studying toward an associate’s in graphic design, hoping the dual degrees will improve her career prospects.
“I do work full time, so I am able to arrange my school time around my working hours,” Ramsdale said. “This provides me the opportunity to get my degree while remaining debt-free.”
The school started small in New York in 1997 and was accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council beginning in 2001, when Drummond joined. An experienced corporate “change agent,” Granatowski joined the school around the same time at the behest of investor Spencer Trask, she said. Spencer Trask is a network of private investors that supports innovative companies focused on social impact.
Granatowski bought majority ownership of the privately held school in 2004. “The school has been profitable for most of its history,” she said.
Additionally, in the last three to four years, the school has reached a series of major benchmarks. In 2009, the bulk of operations moved to Arizona, where the company now has 12 employees. Granatow-ski, Drummond and a handful of other executives remain in Manhattan.
The school’s faculty is made up of more than 30 working design professionals from around the country, who spend an average of more than three years with Sessions, teaching beginning and advanced design courses in their fields and providing individual critiques of student projects. The three-member education department, located in Easthampton, Mass., works with them to design and test classes and monitor online teaching, ensuring consistent quality.
“We sometimes get a little skepticism or lack of understanding from people who want to know how it works,” Drummond said with a laugh. “A lot of people don’t know how art education can work, never mind how it can happen online.”
The way they structure the classes is project-based, he said, “so you have a series of projects that are creative and open-ended … so you’re learning techniques and skills and then applying them to a creative project that will let you demonstrate those skills to your instructor.”
Most projects will be resubmitted several times and re-critiqued, Drummond said, mimicking what goes on in the workplace. In many cases, the feedback is in text form, but some teachers use video, and there’s even a member of the animation faculty who sends back student works after adding his own digital commentary tracks, Drummond said.
Student Hiba Abugosh, who turns 22 in February, grew up in Indianapolis but has lived in Saudi Arabia with her family for more than a decade. Currently living in Jubail, she found it difficult to pursue her graphic design dream after graduating high school.
She researched various online schools, which led her to Sessions. “While enrolling, I didn’t know what I was in for. I guess people always assume it will be tedious and boring and maybe even difficult to study on your own, but it was actually quite the opposite,” Abugosh said.
“Not only does online learning provide a lot more flexibility (time wise) but it also offers a much more personal, one-on-one experience with the professors and instructors and you really feel like they treat each student with special care.”
At the end of their Sessions education, student work is available for viewing through a custom-built online service called “My Gallery,” which stores all of their finished projects.
“We try to help students build a broad, deep portfolio as they go through the program,” Drummond said. “If they’re going through our degree program, for example, they will take 29 or 30 classes in a two-year period. If we didn’t help them with that, it would be easy for students to lose track of their work.”
Abugosh’s story already has a happy ending.
“I just graduated with an associate’s degree in graphic design in December, but actually got a job a month before that,” she reported. “My job sort of came up out of the blue when a friend of a friend called and said she had heard I was a graphic designer looking for a job. I went to the interview and it all went great, and the fact that I was about to graduate was really helpful.”
By Joel Brown