By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Angela Bostic will get her MBA in August from the University of Maryland University College, part of a dual master's degree she is pursuing. She has never met a professor, has never sat in a classroom and has checked out the Adelphi campus only once, long after she had enrolled. In fact, until recently, the 28-year-old graduate student had been studying from Brussels.
Bostic is among an extraordinarily fast-growing number of students nationwide and worldwide who are turning to online degree programs to complete or advance their educations while they work, decisions that are driven by economics as well as by a society that is increasingly mobile.
Congress passed a law in March that drops the requirement that colleges offer at least half their courses face to face to receive federal student aid. The new law will undoubtedly attract more students and schools into the fledgling online industry.
Online enrollment, including multiple courses taken by a single student, jumped from 1.98 million in 2003 to 2.35 million the following year, accounting for 7 percent of postsecondary education, according to Eduventures, a Boston firm that studies trends in education. Another study, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, reports that 65 percent of universities offering face-to-face graduate courses also offer graduate courses online. By early 2008, Eduventures predicts, about one in 10 college students will be enrolled in an online degree program.
"It's only going to grow," said Richard Garrett, an analyst with Eduventures. "The largest high school graduating class in U.S. history is expected to be 2009. There is going to be a lot of pressure on these students to get education in a competitive market."
Critics of e-learning have long said that learning alone through a computer does not provide the enriching intellectual exchange that in-person classes offer. In addition, they say that because the industry is so new, naive consumers may not know the difference between accredited institutions and fly-by-night operations that imply accreditation and charge steep prices. Most educators and industry executives acknowledge that e-learning may not be right for young learners who have not developed the discipline needed to work independently.
Some college administrators predicted that the online learning trend would explode a decade ago as the Internet became more popular, but some traditional schools over-committed before they understood the market. With much fanfare, Columbia University and New York University both launched online learning programs between 1998 and 2000, but they did not offer what some students wanted: a degree. Both programs closed.
Stanford University today offers online master's degrees in certain sciences, but most elite schools have looked down their noses at online degrees.
The University of Phoenix, the nation's largest for-profit online school, initially catered just to distance learning, and it is one of the few that has grown dramatically, by advertising heavily and targeting adult students. But it does not offer what some consumers want: a degree from a traditional brick-and-mortar institution.
At the University of Massachusetts, administrators knew from the beginning that there was an adult market that wanted and would pay for a brand name. "We really understand our audience," said Jack M. Wilson, the president of the university, who started the online venture in 1999. "Students are very different when they are older."
Wilson said his average online student is between 24 and 50, and working. The key for the school, he said, was to create an Internet entity that would blend seamlessly into the university -- admission standards are the same, degree requirements are the same, and the regular faculty is used and paid extra to teach online courses.
Massachusetts's online program offers 61 degree programs, having added 21 this year, and it has quadrupled its enrollment since 2002. In fiscal 2006, revenues for the online school grew 28 percent, and enrollment jumped 20 percent.
Schools that have taken on e-learning in a serious way say producing good, organized courses is labor intensive and expensive. For example, Massachusetts and Maryland's University College provide 24-hour library and technical support to students.
In 1999, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities launched JesuitNet, a collaborative effort in distance learning that allows 28 Jesuit schools to consolidate expenses and share coursework. They started with half a dozen degree offerings and now offer 45 degrees and 380 courses. One of the schools, Fairfield University, found that by offering summer classes online, it was able to keep revenues that students would otherwise have spent elsewhere. Within three years, the school went from 20 online summer courses to 40 -- all fully subscribed.
"We took a much more conservative approach initially, and it has just grown," said the Rev. Charles L. Currie, president of the association.
University of Maryland University College, which has also seen significant growth, is part of the Maryland state university system, although it operates as a separate entity. In 2005, the school had 51,405 online students, up from 9,696 in 1998. UMUC has a leg up on its competitors because it started out 60 years ago as a distance-learning facility serving troops worldwide. With the Internet the school was poised to capture the market.
"There will always be a need and a demand for face-to-face learning," said UMUC's president, Susan C. Aldridge. "But people need more opportunities and avenues to continue their educations."
While traditional schools have for the most part used their staff professors to teach online, UMUC contracts with a wide array of people to teach their expertise. Paul J. Fekete, an international economic consultant, for example, has taught for 11 years. He said he finds the caliber of student quite good. "They have motivation because they are forced to put their views in writing, which can be much more difficult than just a quick answer in class," he said. "They might have to work with someone across the globe" on collaborative projects.
And Fekete, 48, finds the class as convenient for him as for his students. He notes that he has been able to continue teaching while traveling in places such as Laos and Afghanistan.
"I actually feel like I am learning more," said Angela Bostic, the student. "The dynamic is such that you have to learn how to effectively communicate in the written form. That is actually more of a task than speaking in class."
Bostic lives in North Carolina now, but her education remains constant. After she receives her MBA, she will be able to finish her course work for a master's in international management -- from wherever she ends up.
In some cases, however, the opportunity has moved faster than the acceptance. In 1998, Kaplan Inc. (which is owned by The Washington Post Co.) started Concord Law School, the first JD program that is completely online, with 33 students. So far, it has awarded degrees to 229 students in 38 states, and 1,800 students are currently enrolled. But the American Bar Association does not recognize the degree, effectively prohibiting students from taking the bar exam in most states.
Barry A. Currier, the dean, said the school is undeterred. "I think things will change. We just have to take baby steps," he said. "We don't want to bully or scream our way into legitimacy, but once people see what we do over time, the degrees will be accepted."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.