Stephen Conway works independently at Mass Bay Community College in a computer science course that is designed in conjunction with online learning from MIT, in this file photo from March  2013. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor)

For much of their modern existance, distance-education courses have suffered from an image problem.

In the 1970s and 1980s, they were seen as cheap knockoffs of on-campus offerings, hawked on late-night television by the likes of Sally Struthers, who asked viewers, “Do you want to make more money? Sure, we all do,” in commercials for the International Correspondence School.

In the late 1990s, the introduction of online learning coincided with the expansion of for-profit providers, such as the University of Phoenix and Corinthian Colleges. The two trends were often conflated in the media, and the quality concerns that frequently dogged the for-profit industry rubbed off on online programs.

Columbia University tried to change public perception in 2000, when it started a high-profile, $25 million online learning portal called Fathom, which aggregated content from other top-ranked institutions. It was an idea ahead of its time, by a decade. The site went dark in 2003, after failing to turn a profit. By 2011, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, just 29 percent of American adults said that online courses offered equal value to learning in traditional classrooms.

But then the negative headwinds facing online education began to shift, and quickly. The big reason? Name-brand and elite universities suddenly became interested in digital learning.

In 2012, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT all announced bold efforts to offer online courses to the masses for free with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from new technology start-ups, Coursera and edX. Several top-tier schools, including the University of North Carolina, Georgetown University, and Berkeley, put several of their graduate programs online through 2U, an education technology company. Starbucks announced a partnership with Arizona State University to offer its benefits-eligible employees full tuition reimbursement to complete their degrees online.

And all that happened in just the past five years. Thousands of students who would never have considered taking an online course from the University of Phoenix or another for-profit institution began taking one for the first time from top-tier universities. Those selective universities did what millions of dollars in advertisements from online providers never achieved: they legitimized virtual education.

“The elites realized that if they didn’t go online, someone else would and win in this space,” said Chip Paucek, co-founder and CEO of 2U, which is based in Landover, Md. “A sleeping giant is awakening online in the form of elite colleges.”

Since 2008, 2U has developed online programs in conjunction with more than a dozen selective universities. Its online programs, which enroll about 21,000 students in total, tend to be better produced and more “high-touch” than the typical online course offered by for-profit schools at the bottom of the market or the MOOCs designed for an audience of tens of thousands. As a result, schools with 2U programs charge similar tuition online as they do for their on-campus programs.

“We focused on the student experience, on the teaching, so the outcomes for graduates are excellent, which is where the for-profits failed,” Paucek said. The board passage rate for students at Georgetown’s family nurse practitioner online program, for instance, is 97 percent. Nearly half of the graduates from Berkeley’s data science program report they were promoted in their jobs after completing the program.

One reason for 2U’s success is that it has focused on the market for online master’s degrees. An effort to create courses for undergraduates at elite universities, including Duke, Emory, and Northwestern, was abandoned by the company in 2014. “At the elite levels, undergrads believe that the campus experience is critical,” Paucek said. “They continue to have an emotional attachment to a campus.”

 

Graduate students, however, tend to be place bound, often need a master’s degree to get ahead in their career, and are willing to pay a higher price tag for a degree from a name-brand school, especially if they didn’t get a bachelor’s degree from one. American University broadened the geographic reach of its MBA by partnering with 2U last year on an online MBA.

“We already have more than 250 students, and among the initial class, half were female and half were minority students,” Jill Klein, assistant dean for digital initiatives at American’s business school, told me.

There is evidence elsewhere, too, that online education is increasing access to higher education, at least among master’s degrees. A study released this month from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government found that students who enrolled in Georgia Tech’s $7,000 online master’s degree in computer science would not have gone anywhere else if the program didn’t exist. By “satisfying large, previously unmet demand for mid-career training, this single program will boost annual production of American computer science master’s degrees by 8 percent,” the Harvard researchers concluded.

Another reason for the growing legitimacy of online education, especially among master’s programs, is that more college graduates today have experience taking virtual courses compared to previous generations. According to Pew, 23 percent of college graduates have taken an online course; among recent graduates that proportion rises to 46 percent.

Online education won’t replace traditional undergraduate residential colleges, nor is it likely to replace face-to-face graduate education any time soon. But as the experiences of dozens of institutions have shown in recent years, virtual courses don’t need to totally disrupt traditional degrees to have a significant impact on the future of higher education.