Online university and graduate education is exploding and will account for one in 10 college students by 2008, according to a study by consulting firm Eduventures. And, the Washington Post says, a study funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation reports 65 percent of traditional graduate schools also offer online courses.
The reasons aren't that hard to understand. In March, Congress dropped a requirement that colleges offer half their courses in traditional face-to-face settings in order to receive federal student aid.
"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."
While for-profit companies like University of Phoenix and Kaplan Inc. have rushed into meet the need, what education customers really want is a degree from a top school with the convenience on online learning. And that is still hard to come by.
Stanford University today offers online master's degrees in certain sciences, but most elite schools have looked down their noses at online degrees.
... 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.
Besides U.Mass, the Post profiles a few other dynamic programs, like JesuitNet, a collaboration between 28 Jesuit schools. JesuitNet offers 45 degrees and 380 courses. University of Maryland University College had 51,405 online students in 2005, up from 9,696 in 1998.
"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."One of the most conservative areas of education, online legal education has not been accepted.
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."