Skip to main content

ASU Online reaches milestone of 100,000 graduates

ASU the largest public not-for-profit university offering online degree programs

Black man with beard and glasses wearing maroon cap and gown looks up at balloons dropping during commencement

ASU Online student Mario Liddell received a master's degree in business analytics in 2022, becoming part of an alumni community that will hit 100,000 graduates this summer. Photo by FJ Gaylor/Arizona State University

May 09, 2024

When David Elie completes his coursework this summer and earns two Arizona State University bachelor’s degrees, he will be part of a joyous milestone — ASU Online will reach 100,000 graduates.

Elie, who lives in Round Rock, Texas, is one of tens of thousands of Sun Devils who started college and never finished, but found a path forward through ASU Online.

These are students who might not have otherwise earned a degree because they don’t have access to a college or university, or can’t attend classes on a traditional schedule. ASU Online’s asynchronous courses allow them to earn a degree on their own time — whether they’re working full time and raising a family, serving their country overseas or dealing with a learning disability.

Elie, 44, who is an Uber driver, will earn degrees in psychology and African and African American studies. He came to ASU Online through the Uber program, which covers 100% of tuition for drivers and their families.

“When the pandemic happened, that was a good time to pivot and explore new avenues,” he said.

“A lot of my focus is within the Black community and I’m trying to find ways to be effective inside the community, whether that’s political or exploring trauma.”

Elie is finishing earlier than he expected.

“Working with the advisors has been great, and that’s how I’ve been able to do it,” he said.

ASU first started offering online degrees in 2006. Now it’s the largest public not-for-profit university offering online degree programs. ASU Online students learn the same content from the same faculty as students who attend in person.

The university is filling a critical need for workers with college degrees. In the U.S., 40 million people started college but stopped before earning the degree that could advance them in their careers.

The economic effect of closing this degree gap is enormous: In 2023, ASU Online graduates had an estimated $2.7 billion impact on the Arizona economy and a national economic impact of $9.2 billion.

Among the factors that set ASU apart:

  • ASU Online offers more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs. It developed the first fully online degree in electrical engineering that’s accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
  • ASU has forged unique partnerships to make a degree even more accessible. The Starbucks College Achievement Plan and the Uber program, both of which cover the cost of tuition, have enabled thousands of employees to earn a degree.
  • Prospective students can earn admission to ASU Online through Universal Learner Courses, which are offered online and are open to everyone. Learners can get college experience before officially enrolling, earn credit for a fraction of the cost and pay only if they pass the course.
  • ASU Online students can be in Barrett, The Honors College, and have access to undergraduate research, study abroad, in-person labs, student organizations and class trips.

“ASU Online has helped more than 27,000 Arizonans to graduate from college, impact the economy and transform their lives,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said. “Overall, ASU Online is a path for more than 100,000 people to graduate college who likely would not have finished their studies. The impact of that on the state and national economy is staggering.

“In fact, ASU economists estimate that the overall economic impact of ASU Online graduates is $2.7 billion in Arizona and $9.2 billion in the United States."

Infographic with stats for ASU Online students: 28,420 students enrolled to date; top undergraduate majors: psychology, business, biological sciences, liberal studies, information technology; top graduate majors: special education, curriculum and instruction, social work, business administration, psychology; 34,521 veterans and active military; 153,926 new transfer students; 29 average age for new students; top home states: Arizona, California, Texas, Washington, Florida.
Graphic courtesy EdPlus at ASU

Building trust in online learning

While ASU started offering online degree programs in 2006, it didn’t officially become ASU Online until 2010.

Phil Regier, university dean for educational initiatives and CEO of EdPlus, the ASU unit that houses ASU Online, took over the online programs in 2009. He had been in the W. P. Carey School of Business when it got a $2 million grant from a company to develop an online master’s of business administration degree with a focus on supply chain management.

“And they didn't want to send all of their people to Phoenix to get it done,” he said.

“We measured what happened, and much to our surprise, it worked. Students learned as well as they did on campus, even with the very crude tools that we were using then online.”

Regier knew that ASU Online had to focus on full degree programs, especially undergraduate, not just individual online courses.

“To build a master's program, I only have to work with one set of faculty, and I have to build typically 10 courses,” he said.

“An undergraduate program requires buy-in from the entire university. And that is why there are so few large undergraduate online programs at public and private universities. And that's a huge advantage for ASU."

One challenge in the early days was building trust in the concept. Even Regier’s mother asked him if he was sure he wanted to run the online enterprise.

“Immediately people would tell me, ‘Isn't it easy to cheat?’ There was a stigma, and to a great extent, it was because the for-profits had developed the brand around online education. It was cheap, it was not rigorous, it was probably very easy to cheat, et cetera,” he said.

ASU Online overcame that by working closely with faculty to show people that online learning is just a different way to access the same degree programs.

“We will only build a program if the learning outcomes are as good or better than what you're delivering to face-to-face students,” Regier said.

“And the admission criteria have to be exactly the same for online and face-to-face.”

The earliest degree programs were lecture-based degrees, such as psychology and history.

“And then as we developed muscle around instructional design, we had to build lower division lab courses. And that was a struggle. How do we do labs online?” he said.

“It took us a couple of years to get to the point where we knew how to do things like projects that required group work.”

The 2013 debut of the first online electrical engineering degree that was accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology was a turning point.

“Once we figured out how to do electrical engineering, it gave the whole university confidence that there were a lot of things that you could do online,” Regier said.

Coaches as champions

One key to the success of ASU Online is the support system for students that include success coaches, financial aid counselors, enrollment counselors and academic advisers.

Success coaches are like life coaches, motivating students and helping them to build skills, according to Casey Evans, chief operating officer for EdPlus.

“The biggest one is time management — how do I manage the work I have to do and the education I have to get with the life I have?” she said.

The success coaches build deep trust with their students.

“In many cases, for first-generation students, they don’t have anyone who truly connects to the value of a degree, so the coach is their champion and provides the tools and resources to help them overcome the hurdles they will face,” she said.

“The coaches listen to their pain and their problems and their struggles.”

Balancing work and school

One graduate who faced enormous hurdles is Daphne Poerio, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area and spent 12 years earning an associate degree before transferring to ASU.

Poerio’s parents told her and her sister that they would not pay for any post-secondary education.

“I went to the local junior college, just aimlessly going around, trying to get through math,” she said.

She eventually became a veterinary technician and then a medical assistant while she earned two associate degrees — social sciences and kinesiology, which took her a total of 12 years.

“Working at an urgent care, I’d see people come in with chest pains, and I was surrounded by nurses who were really awesome,” she said.

That sparked a desire in her to be a nurse. Her supervisor at the urgent care told her that her best bet for an undergraduate degree would be community health, so that’s what she majored in.

Doing coursework while working full time was difficult.

“At first, I wasn’t thrilled,” Poerio said. “But as I was going through the program, I was able to use the lessons from my classes in my daily practice as a medical assistant working with lots of homeless people. I could help them find resources.”

She liked that she could do her classwork on her own time.

“My professors and my advisors were really awesome. If I ever had an issue, they were always responsive. I was impressed that such a big university would respond so quickly,” said.

Poerio graduated in 2023 and hopes to get into a graduate nursing program.

Once we figured out how to do electrical engineering, it gave the whole university confidence that there were a lot of things that you could do online.

Phil RegierUniversity dean for educational initiatives and CEO of EdPlus

Filling the STEM gap

ASU is working hard to address the shortage of workers in STEM fields, and biological sciences is one of the top five most popular majors for ASU Online undergraduates.

While the online course content is as rigorous as the in-person classes, ASU had to come up with a way for students to get hands-on lab experience with sophisticated instruments. A few years ago, ASU started offering weeklong “boot camps” on campus for online students to complete all their lab work.

Students have the option of completing their labs at an institution near them and transferring the credits but the overwhelming majority choose to come to ASU, according to Ara Austin, senior director of online engagement and strategic initiatives for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She developed the boot camp model, which serves hundreds of online students every year.

“The students come and that's what they realize they have affinity for ASU and they run straight to the bookstore and buy an ASU sweatshirt,” said Austin, who is also a clinical associate professor in the School of Molecular Sciences.

Austin said that ASU Online allows working professionals to reskill and upskill to get ahead in STEM fields.

“We hear the public saying things like, ‘We are lacking professionals in the STEM disciplines.’ OK, there are thousands of working professionals that have college credits, but don't have a degree. So ASU is trying to bridge that gap,” she said.

Impacting a leader

Some adults come to ASU Online to fulfill a personal goal. John Liechty is the senior vice president for U.S. retail operations at Starbucks, a top position he achieved without completing an undergraduate degree.

Liechty is from Seattle and started at the University of Washington right after high school, where he had already earned several college credits.

“I did not have anywhere near the level of maturity and discipline required. It turns out you had to attend class to be successful,” he said.

So he got a job as a barista at Starbucks, where he worked his way up to district manager and then into the corporate office. He was based in the Hong Kong office in 2014, at the start of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which at that time was for U.S.-based partners only. But he decided he’d enroll when he returned.

“My lack of a degree, while it didn't hinder my professional career in any way, was a source of massive insecurity for me,” he said.

“It was just constantly awkward and it impacted how I showed up as a leader in unproductive ways.”

And as an executive, he felt like it was important to share in a crucial benefit that was available to store partners. So Liechty enrolled as a philosophy major, though he was still traveling to Asia. Thanks to the asynchronous classes, he studied during his 15-hour flights.

“I'm not exaggerating when I say that the majority of my ASU coursework was done somewhere over the Pacific,” he said.

“So I blew through my coursework, graduated cum laude, got the Dean's Medal for my school. It was a very different academic performance than my first time around.”

Many of his classmates were also Starbucks partners, who had no idea who he was.

“It continues to impact how I think about decisions as a senior leader at Starbucks, having sat virtually side-by-side with so many of our partners in the classroom,” he said.

“And also studying philosophy, logic and critical thinking — not a day goes by that I am not more critical in how I'm making objective decisions.

“I thought I would engage in a passion subject and it would have nothing to do with my day-to-day work and be a break from the pressures of being a retail executive, but it turns out that I call upon my studies regularly in my day-to-day work.”

Helping people transform

The innovation of ASU Online has been to make the higher education process more accessible — and aligned with the university’s charter.

Evans sees more work ahead to draw the next generation of learners.

“We have to get smarter about building the curriculum and engaging people who are used to consuming hours of TikTok a day,” she said.

“Narrative storytelling like Dreamscape Learn and gamification need to be unpacked.”

One of the most impactful initiatives has been Universal Learner Courses, which open the way for people who weren’t ready for college the first time they tried. More than 5,300 students have enrolled in ASU Online through the Universal Learner Courses, Evans said.

“To believe that 20 years later, someone is the same person they were as an 18-year-old is delusional, yet academic records are set in stone and are untouchable,” she said.

“This allows students a fresh start at ASU with the knowledge we need them to meet this criteria to do college-level work.

“Watching a student who came in through earned admissions get into Barrett, The Honors College demonstrates that people are not one thing. They change over time, and to be a little part of that transformation is phenomenal for us.”

More Sun Devil community


Shannon Zellner celebrates her graduation, dressed in a cap and gown in a snowy Japan

ASU Online alumna overcomes adversity, becomes advocate for military families

Editor's note: Arizona State University alumni are making a difference in every corner and community of the world, positively changing the lives of those they encounter. For National Military…

Hands typing on a laptop.

ASU's Earned Admission program paves the way for second chances

Over the past few weeks, students across the nation celebrated significant milestones — National College Decision Day and commencement, for example. But not everyone gets to make a decision to go to…

Eight American University Kyiv (AUK) graduates including Yulia Shtaltovna, Taras Dumych, Ruslan Hutnikov, Kateryna Karavan, Roman Makarchuk and Anna Omelchuk attended Thunderbird spring 2024 convocation exercises at Thunderbird Global Headquarters in downtown Phoenix.

Inaugural cohort from Ukraine graduates with dual degrees during wartime

The American University Kyiv opened its doors in February 2022, just three weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Despite the tremendous challenges that followed, the school and its students…