By her own admission, the new president of a university for non-traditional students was “traditionally educated.” Merodie Hancock graduated from an Arizona boarding school and a well-regarded women’s college, Scripps College, where in 1987 she earned a degree in economics.
Hancock earned a master’s of business administration from Claremont Graduate University in California in finance and strategic management and a Ph.D. in urban services from Old Dominion University in Virginia.
Early in her career her interest turned to non-traditional education, and she has dedicated her career to adult students, believing education can transform them, those around them, and their communities.
The new president of Thomas Edison State University (TESU), headquartered in Trenton, took office in March. TESU, New Jersey’s only institution dedicated to adults, offers undergraduate and graduate programs in more than 100 areas of study. It is considered a leader in the assessment of adult learning, including professional and military training and college-level knowledge acquired outside the classroom.
Hancock’s introduction to non-traditional students occurred shortly after she completed her MBA. She was the spouse of a military officer when Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University asked her to teach classes at the Naval Air Station Oceanna in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The class included mostly non-traditional students who were enlisted service members.
“They didn’t stay within the prescribed chapter,” she recalled. “They asked a lot of questions. They were excited about the material.” Teaching economic theory at the time, she realized that the students were living the textbook stagflation — a term for persistent high inflation combined with high unemployment and stagnant demand for workers.
“I caught the bug,” she said. “The students taught me that anything is game, with their life experiences. I remember calling my mother and telling her this is going to be my career.” Hancock served as a faculty member and director at Embry-Riddle from 1990 to 1999.
Hancock realized that she had observed non-traditional education within her own family. Her father, who served in the U.S. Air Force, was an engineer who went back to school and became an architect. Her mother received her master’s degree in social work as she was raising five children. Hancock is one of 10 children.
“I didn’t connect it at the time, but I grew up in the adult education environment,” she said.
Hancock served as vice president of off-campus and online programs at Central Michigan University, where she was director of Special Olympics Michigan, and was an associate vice president and associate provost at the University of Maryland University College from 1999 to 2007.
She was elected unanimously by the Thomas Edison board of trustees in December, 2017, coming from State University of New York (SUNY) Empire State College. The personal reasons, she said, were to be closer to family — parents and in-laws and siblings, many of whom live in the mid-Atlantic region. Professionally, she felt she had accomplished what she set out to do at SUNY. At SUNY Empire State, where she was president since 2013, she oversaw 35 locations throughout the state, the Center for Distance Learning, and eight international sites.
Moreover, she is a “huge believer in education for adults in urban areas,” seeing education as part of the urban renewal process.
Since her time in Virginia Beach, she has made adult education her mission. Adult education is a different world from the undergraduate, campus education of 18-year-old college students. The biggest challenge for adult students is time, she said. “There is always a trade-off, like job, family, studying, caretaking. The non-traditional student has unique needs. They are discerning customers because they don’t put up with a lot. They don’t have time. And money is a challenge. Some come with debt — an unfinished degree. It is incumbent on us to figure out how to get their degrees. We don’t want to add new debt.”
TESU, with its 17,200 students, is fully dedicated to the mature adult student, Hancock said. “We are not confused with who we are. We don’t go after the 18-year-old. There are no coming-of-age services. The adult student is a busy, driven learner.”
She is a believer in members of the military service and veterans reaching the goal of completing their degrees. TESU’s Military Degree Completion Program enables military students to engage in degree programs wherever they are stationed or deployed. “I’ve had students concerned about their work when they are dodging bombs in Afghanistan. They are dedicated. They want their degree and want it to matter.”
TESU, which she calls a “best kept secret,” relies on word of mouth and some advertising, but as a public institution the ad budget is not huge. TESU partners with corporations and employee associations to let prospective students know what is available to them.
Not all courses are skill-oriented, such as the master’s degree in liberal studies. The writing-intensive program is for students who want the broad knowledge that the liberal arts offers. And employers do want this broad-based knowledge, she said. “When applying for jobs, human resource departments often work directly with skills for the particular job. But the CEO will talk about critical thinking and risk assessment — higher level skills.”
Engaging alumni is something still evolving for adult education colleges, which don’t usually hold homecomings or fall football games. But Hancock hopes to grow the alumni and professional networks, believing that alumni do want to give back.
One of Hancock’s goals is to ramp up student support services, for example, tutoring, time management training, and information on financial resources. She will continue to advocate for access and technology.
Hancock came to TESU at the end of its strategic plan, which calls for enhanced academic programming, such as the new Doctor of Nursing Practice program at the W. Cary Edwards School of Nursing, a first doctoral level program. She follows former president George A. Pruitt, who served TESU for 35 years and announced his plans to step down in June, 2017. She is only the fourth president of TESU.
Chartered in 1972, then Thomas Edison State College, TESU is one of New Jersey’s 11 senior public institutions of higher learning and one of the oldest schools in the country designed specifically for adults. It is considered a pioneer in the use of technology to develop and deliver academic programs for the needs of adult learners. Applicants must possess a high school diploma or its GED equivalent and be 21 years old or older. Active duty service members of the U.S. military must be 18 or older to apply. (Those between the ages of 18 and 20 years old who are not active duty service members of the U.S. military may apply for an admission waiver.)
While the TESU campus is “anywhere students are,” Hancock is particularly interested in Trenton. Eight TESU buildings are located in Trenton’s downtown and historic district. TESU moved to Trenton in 1979, establishing headquarters in the landmark Kelsey Building. Since then TESU has restored several historic buildings, and now the Kelsey Complex serves as the university’s administrative center. The State House Historic District also includes TESU buildings such as Kuser Mansion, Hanover Hall, and the newer Canal Banks Building on West Hanover Street. The Center for Learning and Technology is home to the university’s course development team and a media production studio. The School of Nursing is located in its newest building, George A. Pruitt Hall, completed in 2016.
Hancock works in her office with the window open to State and Barrack streets, loving the noises of the city. She said she feels “invigorated and energized.”
She has been involved in professional organizations such as Distance Education Commission Advisory Group, Inside Track Advisory Board, Council of College and Military Educators, League for Innovation, National Association of Institutions for Military Education Services, and the National Commission on Online Learning Benchmarking Study. She has been an external reviewer for numerous self-studies and evaluations by national accreditors and the Department of Defense.
To unwind, Hancock, a Mercer County resident, rides a bike, gardens, and works out, a way to “work through what has accumulated in my head.”
In her office is a reminder that one is never done learning. Next to her framed MBA diploma from Claremont is the cover of Forbes magazine from October 5, 1998, featuring Peter Drucker and the headline, “Everything you learned is wrong.” Drucker is widely considered the father of management.
“He taught that he was always learning and evolving in his thinking,” said Hancock. “Things change, you have to keep learning. I have always had it by my desk. We never have all the answers.”
Thomas Edison State University, 101 West State Street, Trenton 08608. 888-442-8372, www.tesu.edu.