Better by degrees

Online Universities gain popularity — and a new legitimacy
By ASHLEY RIGAZIO  |  January 22, 2008

For busy adults already in the workplace, finding a set time and place to pursue a degree can be nearly impossible. Packed schedules, family obligations, and full-time employment can stand in the way of educational goals, leaving some people in a precarious situation: unable to gain the skills and schooling necessary to advance while balancing workplace (and real-world) responsibilities.

According to an October 2007 Sloan Consortium survey, the answer for 20 percent of adult and continuing-education students in the US is online. Online enrollment is growing at a staggering rate (9.7 percent annually, compared with 1.5 percent for traditional colleges), and in fall 2006, nearly 3.5 million students reported taking at least one class online. Students who want to earn a degree online can choose from young institutions such as the University of Phoenix, vocational schools such as ITT Technical Institute, or established universities like Stanford.

Amie Sanborn, of Wakefield, New Hampshire, is a 22-year-old freshman majoring in business management and finance at Penn Foster Career School, a nationally and regionally accredited college. But she will never suffer through a lecture or experience the pomposity of a tenured professor. Thanks to improvements in online teaching tools (including online research libraries and virtual simulations), Sanborn can earn her degree at her keyboard on her own schedule and at her own pace without ever stepping awkwardly onto the campus quad or being cuffed during a Kenmore riot.

Penn Foster students study school-provided textbooks and take open-book exams, but Sanborn says the questions can be tough (“The phrases aren’t in the book — you have to infer from what you know,” she says), and it would be difficult for someone to cheat. There are no classes; students are expected to study the textbooks and corresponding CD exercises on their own. The program is also adaptable for students who don’t have constant access to the Internet, as Penn Foster students can enter answers online, via e-mail, or over the phone.

“They’re very accommodating,” adds Sanborn, who pays only $900 per semester — far less than the tuition of conventional colleges with similar offerings.

The arrangement is perfect for Sanborn, a Penn Foster student since April 2007 — she’s also an employed single mother of two young children. “It’s less expensive and more flexible, and it allows me to spend more time with my little ones,” she says, as two-year-old Christopher runs through the room dragging a jump-rope and clutching a sippy cup. Sanborn does her coursework while her children sleep and has up to one year to complete each semester. She must complete four semesters to earn her associate degree.

Neil Wilson, a Newburyport-based career counselor, agrees that online universities are now an accepted, constantly improving option for adults who wouldn’t be able to continue their educations otherwise. “One of the best things about the Internet is how it allows adults to work on a degree or certificate in almost any subject at any age or stage of life at almost any university in the world, without much traveling or residence required,” he says. “They can do it after the baby goes to bed. It fits around their life.”

About 25 percent of Wilson’s clients come to him without any kind of degree, and he no longer hesitates to recommend online education, especially to clients in career transition.

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