Schenectady County

Excelsior grads earn degrees without campuses (with photo gallery)

300 Excelsior College students attended a graduation ceremony Friday in the Empire State Plaza Conve

Raylon Catlett is not a traditional college student. Then again, neither is his college.

Catlett, 51, of Colonie, took 10 years to earn his bachelor of science in business management, or about six years longer than a typical college student would take. And he earned it without having to step inside a college classroom.

Catlett received his degree through Excelsior College, a regionally accredited, nonprofit institution founded in 1971. Excelsior offers adult learners an avenue to obtain educational certificates and associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees while working, tending to families or both. They earn degrees through online coursework, credit by examination and by transferring credit from other institutions and recognized non-collegiate sources.

On Friday, Catlett was one of 300 Excelsior students who attended a graduation ceremony at Empire State Plaza Convention Center. In all, 5,200 people comprise the Excelsior class of 2012.

“This is incredible. The degree has always eluded me,” Catlett said prior to the graduation ceremony. “It means I have leveled my personal playing field and I have value. I needed to get a college degree for my own personal development and to move up in the company.”

A quality specialist for Riversource Life Insurance in Albany, Catlett started taking classes through Excelsior in 2003. He found that Excelsior accepted almost all of the tests and industry-related courses he took for his job, the recognized non-collegiate sources. “I had 30 college credits when I started taking classes at Excelsior,” he said. “I did look elsewhere and took courses with Empire State College. When I found out Excelsior could take my exams and give me credits, it just fit me.”

Over the next 10 years, he obtained 90 more credits to reach the 120 credit hours needed for his degree. During that time, he continued working and raising a family. “I would get up Saturday morning and stay up late at night or study during breaks at work, whatever time I could use,” he said.

Catlett plans to continue his education at Excelsior. He has been accepted into the school’s MBA program, or he may obtain a master of science in cyber-security.

Attending his graduation ceremony was his mother, Norma Boyd, 83, who drove up from New Jersey. “She has been waiting for me to graduate,” Catlett said with a laugh. “It was her dream for me.”

Catlett is typical of the students who attend Excelsior, said Michael Lesczinski, public relations manager for the college. The average age of this year’s graduate is 37; the oldest graduate is 78. The school has students from all 50 states and 26 other nations. It is based in Albany.

Excelsior President John F. Ebersole said knowledge and learning have shifted beyond traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities to places like Excelsior. “The prime element of our mission is access,” he said. “We want more students to have access to education from any point on Earth.”

Ebersole told the graduates “your success is our success. Excelsior is all about lifelong learning.”

The commencement speaker was Robert B. Reich, an economic analyst, author and former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Reich said today’s graduates face a “lousy” job market, but “here is a bit of good news, even on Friday the 13th.” He said people with degrees have a credential that makes them more employable than someone without a degree. “You will be on the winning side of the ‘Great Divide’ between rich and poor,” he said.

Reich left the graduates with three pieces of advice: Contribute to society; respect yourself and others; and know the difference between tenacity and martyrdom.

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