Why Online Schools Are Booming

Luis Figueroa lives down the street from UC Merced, the newest campus in the University of California system. So it's not surprising that the 21-year-old studies from the comfort of his own home. But he's not enrolled at Merced: from his living-room computer, Figueroa is earning his bachelor's degree in business administration at Columbia College in Missouri, some 2,000 miles away. At $630 per course—about $1,800 per semester—his online degree will cost far less than even in-state tuition at UC. Not only that, Figueroa is able to continue working full time in a management-training job with AT&T in Merced, a job he feels lucky to have in the current economic climate. "Once I realized I had time constraints, I knew the traditional classroom wouldn't work," he says. "Courses online are open 24 hours a day, and I'm able to go there any time I want."

That convenience is one of the main reasons nearly 4 million American students took at least one online course in the 2007–08 school year, according to a study by the Sloan Foundation. The same study found that online enrollment is growing at a rate more than 10 times that of the higher-education population at large—12.9 percent vs. 1.2 percent for traditional "in seat" students. Nowhere is the growth faster than among younger students like Figueroa who are opting for online learning, even when the traditional classroom is—in his case—right outside the front door. "This is a generation that lives online," says Vicky Phillips, founder and CEO of Geteducated.com, a service that ranks online learning institutions. "Everything is instant, accelerated, and accessible, and they expect their education to be that way too. For them there is no clear line between the virtual world and the actual world."

Once targeted at older, working adults, distance learning has moved into the education mainstream at stunning speed over the past couple of years, as technology allows ever-richer, more-interactive learning experiences online—and as college costs continue to rise and classrooms are packed to capacity. For traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, that has meant a scramble to enter a lucrative market that used to be the exclusive territory of for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University (which, like NEWSWEEK, is owned by The Washington Post Company). Established brand-name educators—including Stanford, Cornell, Penn State, and MIT, which has placed its entire curriculum online through its OpenCourseWare program—now offer extensive online learning options and are competing with the for-profits for students. "The stigma is gone," says Phillips. "Online learning has reached mass cultural acceptance. It's no longer the ugly stepsister of the higher-education world."

Online offerings these days can sometimes even surpass the classroom experience. Aaron Walsh, a professor at Boston College and a former videogame designer, has pioneered Immersive Education, a method of teaching through virtual worlds. Meeting in Second Life instead of a physical classroom, says Walsh, allows for some feats that gravity renders impossible, like having art-history students fly to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or biology majors to take a Magic Schoolbus–like trip through the human body. Using videos, podcasts, live chats, Webcams, and wikis, educators increasingly see online learning as a way to engage the videogame generation with pedagogy that feels more like entertainment than drudgery. Students in the new homeland-security master's degree program at the University of Connecticut this fall, for example, will have coursework that resembles Grand Theft Auto: dwelling in a cybercity called San Luis Rey plagued with suicide bombers, biochemical attacks, and other disasters. At Arizona State, students in an Introduction to Parenting class raise a "virtual child." They have to post the progress of their online charge through all the phases of childhood. "The classes are so much more interactive, and I can log on when I'm most ready to learn," says Jaquelyn Holleran, a junior majoring in family and human development at ASU. "I like that so much better than having to rush to class or sit through a lecture that's boring."

As the largest generation since the baby boom attends college at a time of shrinking budgets and soaring costs, many educators believe that online learning holds the greatest promise for expanding the capacity of the U.S. higher-education system. And digital classrooms will surely play an important role in helping the Obama administration pursue its goal of raising the percentage of college graduates in the U.S. to first in the world by 2020 (at least 10 other countries now stand in the way). The surge in students with jobs and families, and those in the military, has also caused online enrollments to soar. Sarah Gerke, an Army private stationed in Iraq, keeps up with her coursework at Columbia College in Missouri, despite the occasional bombing. "Even if I could attend in person," she writes in an e-mail from Camp Liberty, "I think I would stick with online classes for the convenience."

For public institutions such as the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts, online learning not only extends their brand, it's a cost-effective way to serve more students. At UMassOnline, enrollment among students under the age of 25 has increased 91 percent over the past three years. At Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J., that growth rate over the same period is more than 100 percent. "The best way to lower the cost of higher education is to graduate on time," says UMass president Jack Wilson. "More and more we see students using online learning as an accelerator, a way to move more quickly through their undergraduate program."

Another important factor that has closed the prestige gap is the tight integration of online programs into their host institutions. When UMass launched UMassOnline in 2001, it used the same admission standards, the same faculty, the same curricula—and it awarded students degrees indistinguishable from those given to campus-going counterparts. The vision of UMassOnline as a seamless division of the university worked because "it fit with the culture of the institution," says Wilson, who was the CEO of UMassOnline until 2003, when he became the president of UMass. The venture has also been extremely profitable—UMassOnline earned $46.8 million in 2008.

Despite the popularity of online learning, there are shortcomings. Students may save money and time, but they give up college social life. Chat boards are hardly a substitute for the camaraderie of the dorm—or the richness of cultural life on campus. And while it's easy to move ahead in an online course, there's no one looking over your shoulder in a virtual classroom. "You have to be good at planning your time," says ASU's Holleran. "If you don't you're going to fall behind." Then again, help is only an e-mail away.