Fielding University: providing access to graduate education

Fielding delivers a personalized graduate education that fosters individual development, community collaboration, and societal engagement. This approach is part of a vision for Fielding graduates to excel in scholarship and practice that create a more humane, just, and sustainable world.

Objectives of the Intervention

Fielding Graduate University is an accredited non-profit leader in blended graduate education, combining face‐to‐face and online learning. Fielding has a global, distributed community of professionals that is dedicated to lifelong learning, social justice and innovation and the advancement for individuals, organizations, communities, and society. Fielding’s faculty members represent a breadth of scholarship and practice within the fields of clinical psychology and media psychology, human and organizational development, and educational leadership and change. Maintaining Fielding’s reputation for quality programs faculty are mentors and guides to self‐directed students who use their skills to become powerful, and socially‐responsible leaders in their communities, workplaces, and society.

Fielding offers a curriculum with quality degrees and courses for professionals living and working anywhere in the world.

Fielding delivers a personalized graduate education that fosters individual development, community collaboration, and societal engagement. This approach is part of a vision for Fielding graduates to excel in scholarship and practice that create a more humane, just, and sustainable world. This approach is also linked to the following values:Academic Excellence: A commitment to the highest quality scholarship, research, and practice.

  • Community: Supporting a collaborative learning environment built on inclusion and mutual respect.
  • Diversity: Honoring differences as a source of strength.
  • Learner-centered Education: Creating an interactive experience that responds to the interrelated personal and professional lives of our students.
  • Social Justice: A commitment to reducing the many forms of inequality.
  • Transformational Learning: Inspiring a re-examination of one’s worldview and underlying assumptions to enable a deeper understanding of self and society.

Fielding caters to about 1500 PhD students with an education that’s of high quality but available to students in terms of where their life is. Fielding offers a curriculum that makes sense for the students in terms of their personal circumstances and social context.

Origins and rationale of this initiative

Fielding Graduate University was founded in March, 1974, in Santa Barbara, California, the realization of the vision of three founders: Frederic Hudson, Hallock Hoffman, and Renata Tesch—all distinguished higher education administrators and educators. Each contributed an essential ingredient to the establishment of the university. Many others, through their diligence, hard work, and firm belief in the national need for mid-career professional education, gave substance to the dream.

The founders envisioned a nationally recognized graduate school that would serve mid-career professionals wanting to pursue an advanced degree but whose educational and professional objectives could not be met by traditional institutions of higher education. Their success was predicated on two basic, rather advanced, notions: 1) Changing demographics were altering the world of higher education. The founders speculated students seeking advanced degrees would be mid-career adults who wanted to enhance already well-established academic and professional skills; who would be committed to effecting a mid-life career change; and all of whom, by the nature of their quest for a quality graduate education at mid-life, would be interested in being part of a lifetime-learning community. 2) Adults learn in ways that are significantly different from adolescents and young adults. The traditional pedagogical method of education—active teacher, passive learner—would not be appropriate to this new experiment in adult professional education. To accommodate and capitalize upon the learning styles of its students, Fielding developed a rigorous, supportive learning model that today remains flexible, adult-centered, self-directed, task-oriented, and competence-based.

Fielding is based on distributed learning. This approach doesn’t require a specific, physical location in order to facilitate learning. Some of the characteristics of a distributed environment include:

  • The incorporation of technology, in-person, distance-oriented and other interactive tools to support various learning styles.
  • An integration of day-to-day life (work and non-work related) into the learning activities.
  • An emphasis on collaborative learning by peer and community interaction.

Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

Fielding targets adult learners who wish to pursue a PhD, EdD, Master's or a certificate without moving from their homes. Learners who are seeking to continue their career while earning a degree or certificate. Learners who are self-directed learners and appreciate choice and flexibility in a learning environment. Learners who are comfortable with - and interested in - collaborating with others via on-line and off-line technologies.

Most of the students are between the ages of 30-50. They often have been working for a while and have already started their careers, but have decided to pursue a PhD at Fielding. The student population is very diverse, there’s a large number of African-American students and Native American students. 80% of the students are women. A lot of students are social activists and driven by a personal mission to contribute to social change. They want to use their graduate degrees to contribute to for instance environmental issues, social justice issues and human rights issues. Fielding students are typically interested in becoming scholar practitioners and want to use education to apply their acquired knowledge and skills to social ecological issues.

Fielding has three schools: the School of Educational Leadership for Change (ELC), Human & Organizational Development and Psychology. An important level of implementation for innovation is the Office of Strategic Initiatives and Research. This office builds infrastructure for new research, educational and social activist initiatives. One example is its upcoming participation in the PhD School of the Utrecht Network that will bring PhD students together from largely around the Europe to discuss their research topics. Another important level of implementation is the Marie Fielder Center for Democracy, Leadership and Education. This Center encourages new research that addresses today’s educational and social problems. The Center provides a multidisciplinary and inter-school space for Fielding’s faculty, students, and alumni across all disciplines to engage in research, public discourse, and advocacy on the advancement of social democracy, leadership, and education. This new research and policy center promotes Marie Fielder’s principles of transformational change for social justice as exemplified through her life’s work, her philosophy, and her contributions to equity, education, and justice.

Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

Initially Fielding didn’t want to depend on federal grants to remain completely independent of political factors. However, because Fielding wants to offer accessible education to students who may not have the resources to pay tuition at a private institution, it was decided to keep the option for federal funding open. Fielding does now receive federal funding and in that sense has political support. Since Fielding is a private institution, the university doesn’t depend on local, regional or national policies.

Important stakeholders for Fielding are national professional organizations that care about the issue Fielding addresses. For instance the Council of Graduate Schools, the Association of American Colleges and Universities through its Project Kaleidoscope, and the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning through its Competency Based Education Initiatives. Fielding wants to influence the rest of higher education to develop educational and research programs like theirs and share their message and vision with the entire domestic and international higher education community.

In terms of demographic changes that affect Fielding, it’s important to mention the statistics that predict the diversity of the student population in higher education in the US. Statistics show that the majority of students in higher education will be students of colour: African American students, Latino students, Native American students, Asian students. Fielding wants their student body, faculty and research to reflect that. Therefore Fielding offers a curriculum that’s attractive to these diverse students and research programs that speak to their communities.

Fielding sees community engagement as one of the key values of the institution. It is reflected in its strategic plan and the ways in which Fielding manifests community engagement through its mission and educational enterprise. It defines community engagement as the actions that it takes as an institution and through its graduates to create positive social change using the best research and practice. Its stated values support community engagement in various ways, emphasizing community building internally and externally, diversity, learner-centered education, social justice, and transformational learning.

Before the internet, Fielding invented a pedagogical model that enabled individuals to participate in high quality graduate learning from a distance and in small groups in their communities. They learn differently from younger adults, and they need autonomous, self-paced learning environments to grow their intellectual and activist potential. Its vision then and now was that these adults deserve access to graduate learning that they can apply in their communities as they study, and not only when they finish.

From the beginning, Fielding expected students to be engaged in their communities, taking from their educational experience the more relevant theories to address local issues. Fielding seeks to produce graduates that will acquire a high level of knowledge and skills to employ in a set of competencies at the graduate level in the following areas:

  • Diversity
  • Critical thinking
  • Scholarly writing
  • Understanding of ethical issues and social justice and ecological implications
  • Integration of theory and practice

An important part of the institutional strategy and culture of Fielding is to engage the higher education community, (inter)national professional societies and organizations with their work. The institutional identity of Fielding also includes a definition of graduate education as a vital link between scholarship and practice. Although some of the students go on to careers in the professoriate, most become scholar-practitioners with a focus on social change. As a purveyor of graduate education for experienced adults, Fielding has always emphasized that the heart of doctoral learning is to build self-efficacy that leads to positive social change. This self-efficacy includes mastering the tools of community engagement, such as collaboration and dialogue.

In regard to strategic direction, the Board of Trustees completed a new strategic plan in May 2013, which focuses on four objectives:

  • Strengthening Academic Quality & Innovation
  • Ensuring Financial Sustainability
  • Creating an Engaged Student Body
  • Creating an Engaged Faculty, Staff, Alumni, and Board

The strategic planning team, which was composed of members from faculty, staff, alumni, board, students, and external colleagues as advisors, defined Fielding’s engagement as: individual and collective actions of our constituent groups to enact meaningful change within our community as well as externally in the world.

Regarding public support, there’s a growing interest in environmental and social justice issues that encourage students to get a PhD from fielding. Because Fielding connects knowledge with practice, having ties with communities is crucial to fulfil the mission of the university. The research Fielding does is meant to directly serve the public that supports them. It’s also important to Fielding to make this more known and visible to the public, so they plan to have public forums and seminars in locations that have a lot of media attention.

Fielding considers several success factors. One of them is that they’re able to continue to produce a diverse group of individuals with PhD. Another success factor is that Fielding has research recognized by the public as being important for addressing issues for ecological and social justice. Another factor is that they continue to attract a diverse student body and faculty. Fielding also publicizes this in media and marketing communications. Finally Fielding mentions they take on a proactive approach to reach out to social networks, universities and programs in urban areas where people of colour live, for instance Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. Important to note here is that Fielding makes extra efforts to increase financial resources in order to provide education for students who deal with financial constraints.

Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

Fielding has three schools: the School of Educational Leadership for Change (ELC), School of Human & Organizational Development and School of Psychology.

  • The School of Educational Leadership for Change (ELC) develops educational leaders who are agents of change in their own communities and across the globe. The students learn to understand, evaluate, and change conditions in the world that are responsible for social and ecological injustices. Through collaborative and customized programs, they can acquire the skills and knowledge you need to implement meaningful change where you live and work.
  • The School of Human & Organizational Development (HOD) offers a multidisciplinary path to scholarship for professionals who want to expand their knowledge, improve their research skills, and create a more reflective practice. Guided by principles of social responsibility, the School of HOD emphasizes a scholar-practitioner model of engaged learning. The students and alumni use their degrees as consultants, educators, and professional to inform relevant action and discover theoretical insights in support of a more just and equitable world.
  • The School of Psychology pioneered a distance education model comprised of blended and distributed learning that has served adult professionals for over thirty years. By creating flexible opportunities for individuals with career, family, and community responsibilities to achieve their advanced educational goals, Fielding’s community of scholar-practitioners helps define the future of psychology at every level—from theory to practice and research.

One of the most important methodological tools for Fielding is competency based education. Where traditional universities focus more on what you know, Fielding focuses both on what you know, how you can use it and how you can demonstrate you know it. Fielding values the competencies you bring before you start and you get credit for it. Credits are given based on a prior learning assessment. In this way Fielding recognizes and values prior learning: what people can do with what they know and what they’ve learned outside of the classroom. Very few universities work with competency based education on a PhD level, so this makes Fielding very unique.

Fielding also set up centers and initiatives to provide a means to unite academic scholarship and community practice:

  • The Alonso Center brings psychologists and psychiatrists, educators, organizational development experts, and the public together to strengthen our understanding of and support for adaptive, resilient human relationships.
  • The Institute for Social Innovation helps individuals and organizations address societal problems via research, leadership, and organizational development. The Institute uses faculty leaders and student fellows to work in communities to address critical issues of nonprofit organizations, businesses and doctoral communities in general through dialogue, research, and community service projects.
  • The Marie Fielder Center for Democracy, Leadership, and Education explores Dr. Fielder’s work and related topics. The Center supports new research and advances new theories and policies to enhance our understanding of social change and leaders who facilitate change. This, in turn, will help strengthen democratic institutions through education, effective leadership, and public discourse.
  • Under the Institute for Social Innovation (ISI), WNGE is a global community of scholars and activists who are committed to research and action in support of knowledge and change, related to women's and gender issues.

Final outputs of the project are diverse students with PhD who are able to serve society with their knowledge and research.

Describe if the project ensured its sustainability

Fielding ensures sustainability by continuing to offer attractive programs that sustain enrolment. They do this by constantly adding new programs to meet changing needs in society. Fielding continually advertises research that is done by their students on current topics in society. It is important to get this research out in the public space and show what Fielding has to offer in terms of contributing to social change and social impact.

Another important factor that has ensured the sustainability is the brand and reputation of Fielding. A good reputation also attracts students and grants. Fielding actively promotes their work and mission with the use of modern tools: engaging with social media, publishing in journals, speaking on major symposia, going to international conferences.

Besides internal resources, Fielding also increases external resources from grants considered by many foundations and federal governments. Fielding also collaborates with international organizations for joint grants.

As a private institution Fielding is very much aware of the fact that the competition has grown over the past few years. When they started out, there weren’t many universities like Fielding. Lately there are a lot of universities that are creative; there is a growing competition for students and schools that are reaching out to the adult learner. Fielding has seen a slight drop in enrolment because of this. As a private institution it’s important to sustain enrolment tuition, so Fielding has become more aggressive in recruiting and marketing and branding.

An institution like Fielding hasn’t been fully replicated, but there are some early efforts that are taking place with competency based doctoral programs. Cael, (, gives a sense of other universities that do this.

Resources used in the initiative

The Financial Aid Office helps to meet the financial needs of an adult learner and mid-career professional. This office helps learners find a way to bridge that gap between their personal financial resources and the cost of education at Fielding. Learners can take advantage of the available financial aid opportunities: loans, scholarships and grants, veterans benefits and other Funding. The primary source of funding for Fielding students is federal loans. About 75% of Fielding students receive financial help. Fielding administered about $18 million in financial aid last year.

In terms of resources that aren’t financial, it’s worth to mention the Institute for Social Innovation (ISI). The ISI engages with faculty, students and alumni in research projects that inform innovation and change for individuals, organizations and communities. ISI teams use the latest research-based tools to engage participants in data driven action and problem solving. They contribute in knowledge, skills, intellectual capital and connectivity and can also join Fielding in grants.

Fielding doesn’t work with volunteers, but volunteers are involved in community engagement programs they work with, for instance the World Wide Network on Gender Empowerment (WNGE). This network is comprised of global members committed to research, collaboration, and action in support of women’s and gender issues. It is focused on impacting change with cross-cutting measures in sectors including education, health care, environment, violence prevention, equality, and globalization. WNGE connects local, regional, and national initiatives to a global community through innovative ecosystems, collaborative networks, and scholar activism. WNGE works a lot with volunteer organizations.

Other projects that engage with volunteers are social transformation projects of Fielding. When a group of faculty wants to do a project, for instance with the homeless in LA or health issues and want to do research, Fielding offers a small grant to get started with the idea to publish their work and get additional grants. In this context project members work with a small group of volunteers.

In terms of costs perceived by the public, the sector and other stakeholders, it is known that private institutions in general are more costly for students than public institutions. However, because Fielding is aware of this and wants to remain accessible to a diverse group of students, Fielding takes on a proactive approach to gain funding and make the tuition as low as possible.

Did the intervention reach its objectives?

Fielding keeps a careful record of their degree completion rate.

  • The degree completion rate is over 80%, which is well above the national average in the US of 60%.
  • Another indicator is time to degree and accreditation. The time to degree average depends on the program and ranges from 5-8 years. It is important to mention here that Fielding works with a self paced PhD, which allows the flexibility necessary for their students.
  • Finally an important indicator is accreditation from the country and international professional societies.