Online to a college degree

Online degrees could transform high-cost higher education, writes the New York Times.

As Wikipedia upended the encyclopedia industry and iTunes changed the music business, these businesses have the potential to change higher education.

Four years on a college campus may be the ideal, but many people don’t have the time or money — or the academic interests. For the large number of students seeking a job credential, the lower-cost online classes are very attractive.

Chester E. Finn Jr., 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,” Mr. Finn said, “with people piecing together a postsecondary education from different sources.”

The quality of online classes varies. Graduation rates are lower for online community college students, according to a recent study in Washington state. Professors warn online students will learn narrow job skills but not “critical thinking.” (Unlike so many traditional college students, who don’t learn job skills or critical thinking.)

Anya Kamenetz, whose 2010 book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, tracks the new wave of Web-based education efforts, says the new institutions will only continue to improve and expand. “For some people, it will mean going from a good education to a great one,” she said. “For others, it will mean getting some kind of education, instead of nothing.”

The Times takes a closer look at Western Governors University, which includes a weekly call from a mentor, the very low-cost Straighterline, Learning Counts, which gives credit for job experience, and University of the People, which offers nearly free courses to Third Worlders.

Reporter Tamar Lewin tried Straighterline statistics and English courses, discovering it’s easy to cheat and hard to learn without a teacher. Lacking motivation and unwilling to buy the textbooks, she quit.

But what about people who don’t have a degree or marketable job skills? They can take out loans for butt-in-seat classes in hopes they’ll graduate, get a decent job and be able to pay off the debt. They can turn to community colleges, which have struggled to handle enrollment growth. Or they can try lower-cost online programs.