Harvard and Ohio State are not going to disappear any time soon. However, a host of new online enterprises is making earning a college degree cheaper, faster and flexible enough to take work experience into account. As Wikipedia upended the encyclopedia industry and iTunes changed the music business, these businesses have the potential to change higher education.
Ryan Yoder, 35, a computer programmer who had completed 72 credits at the University of South Florida years ago, signed up with an outfit called Straighterline, paid US$216 to take two courses in accounting and one in business communication, and a month later transferred the credits to Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, which awarded him a bachelor’s degree in June.
Alan Long, 34, a paramedic and fire captain, used another new institution, Learning Counts, to create a portfolio that included his certifications and a narrative spelling out what he had learned on the job. He paid US$750 to Learning Counts and came out with seven credits at Ottawa University in Kansas, where he would have had to spend US$2,800 to earn them in a traditional classroom.
And Erin Larson, who has four children and works full time at a television station, but wanted to become a teacher, paid US$3,000 per semester to Western Governors University for as many classes as she could handle — plus a weekly call from a mentor.
“Anywhere else, it would have cost three arms and legs,” said Larson, 40, “and as a certified procrastinator, I found that weekly call very useful.”
For those who have the time and money, the four-year residential campus still offers what is widely considered the best educational experience. Critics worry that the online courses are less rigorous and more vulnerable to cheating, and that their emphasis on providing credentials for specific jobs could undermine the traditional mission of encouraging critical thinking.
However, most experts agree that given the exploding technologies, cuts to university budgets and the expanding universe of people expected to earn postsecondary degrees, there is no end in sight for newfangled programs preparing students for careers in high-demand areas like business, computer science, healthcare and criminal justice.
Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, predicted that all but the top tier of existing universities would “change dramatically” as students regained power in an expanding marketplace.
“Instead of a full entree of four years in college, it’ll be more like grazing or going to tapas bars,” Finn said, “with people piecing together a postsecondary education from different sources.”
While many students at the nascent institutions offer glowing reviews and success stories, a recent study by Teachers College at Columbia University that tracked 51,000 community college students in Washington state for five years found that those with the most online course credits were the least likely to graduate or transfer to a four-year institution.
And traditional professors like Johann Neem, a historian at Western Washington University, see places like Western Governors University as anti-intellectual, saying that its advertising emphasizes how fast students can earn credits, not how much they will learn.