Better by degrees

By ASHLEY RIGAZIO  |  January 22, 2008

However, not all online universities are safe or suitable for every industry. Wilson encourages his clients to use caution and to fully research prospective online programs. “I would always suggest to someone to find out the reputation of the particular program by asking around in their industry before enrolling,” says Wilson. “There have been so many horror stories about what used to be thought of as the ‘matchbook’ continuing-ed programs that only care about ‘life experiences’ and end up in the news when they are found to be committing fraud with financial-aid money.

“People can even find out the credibility and reputation of a particular school by consulting others online in various forums and by simply googling,” says Wilson. “I think you can be more trusting of the many highly respected and name-brand schools that are very open and available on the Internet.”

One online college that’s built a name for itself is the University of Phoenix. Founded in 1976 as a distance-learning institution, the school has since introduced online classes, online library, e-books, and computer simulations. “I think at first people didn’t know what to make of them,” says Wilson, referring to the University of Phoenix as “an entrepreneurial effort.” Though the university and similar schools have struggled to earn a reputation, Wilson claims that they have gained both legitimacy and popularity. Internationally accessible, the school has grown into the largest private university in North America.

Still, even legitimate online institutions come with their difficulties, and even the University of Phoenix has had to set up 200 physical locations to handle students’ needs. Besides the lack of classroom interaction, some online universities have not been able to recreate all of the services and resources available on a traditional campus in a useful and effective way. “I was disappointed with some of the references and aids available, like the library,” says Sanborn, who finds little use for her school’s resources. Navigating the course Web sites can also be hard for students with few computer skills, which is why Penn Foster students are required to take “Information Literacy,” a course that teaches students to use its unique online navigation system (this is common practice in online education).

But for students like Sanborn, the convenience and flexibility of earning a degree online is unbeatable. Though her first semester has taken nine months, she hopes to earn her bachelor’s degree in the typical four years, with her goal being a career in financial management. She’s well on her way, with an A-minus average in her business and finance program. While it will never replace the traditional, four-year college experience (good luck finding a Penn Foster toga party), online education has evolved into a goal-oriented, accepted, and easily accessible option for career-focused individuals.

Ashley Rigazio, who confronted her professors face to face, can be reached at arigazio@phx.com.

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