Harvard and Ohio State are not going to disappear any time soon. But a host of new online enterprises are 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 $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 $750 to Learning Counts and came out with seven credits at Ottawa University in Kansas, where he would have had to spend $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 $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 jobsB could undermine the traditional mission of encouraging critical thinking.
But 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, health care and criminal justice.
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," 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, noting that its advertising emphasizes how fast students can earn credits, not how much they will learn.
"Taking a course online, by yourself, is not the same as being in a classroom with a professor who can respond to you, present different viewpoints and push you to work a problem," Neem said. "There’s lots of porn and religion online, but people still have relationships and get married, and go to church and talk to a minister."
But 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 emerging menu of new offerings is startlingly varied, as are the institutions. One unaccredited nonprofit startup, University of the People, gives English-speaking high school graduates a chance to study business or computers free, with volunteer teachers.
Nationwide, almost three quarters of college students attend public institutions, and commercial career colleges like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan now make up almost as much of the remaining quarter as traditional nonprofit private universities like Stanford or Duke. Many of the emerging models are far cheaper than the publicly traded career colleges, some of which have come under scrutiny over the last year for leaving students with mountains of debt and credentials of little value.
Most are still new and very small, making it hard to locate students who have used them, other than those who were referred by the businesses themselves.
And it is too soon to know which will take off, or what might come along to overtake them.
"I’m just waiting for a Wikipedia University, with high-quality, online, open-source courses provided by a variety of different people," said Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. "Or the moment when someone like Bill Gates creates Superstar University, finding the best professors for the 200 courses that a good liberal arts college offers, and paying them $25,000 each to put their classes online."
WESTERN GOVERNORS UNIVERSITY: Weekly Prompts From a Mentor
Fifteen years ago, bemoaning the high cost of higher education, the governors of 19 Western states decided to start a nonprofit online institution to help meet their need for a trained workforce. The result, Western Governors University, offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in education, business, the health professions and information technology. Everything is online except for student teaching and some nursing requirements.
Most of its 25,000 students are over 25, and have previously earned some college credits.
Instead of being required to spend a certain number of hours to earn a certain sequence of credits, students at Western Governors must show "competency" through assignments and proctored exams.
Marie Hermetz, who paid Western Governors about $9,000 to earn her master’s degree in health-care management, said she heard about the program on the news and switched from one that would have cost up to $40,000.
"Doing it one class at a time, I would have graduated maybe never," said Hermetz, 43, who had a bachelor’s degree in math. "This way, it took just under 18 months. And whenever I ran into trouble, my professors would make arrangements, whether it was through a webinar or a phone call or an email, to help me."
Actually, Western Governors does not have "professors" in the usual sense: The online curriculum is not developed by the university, but chosen by outside experts, and students have "course mentors" with graduate degrees.
In addition, to counter the isolation of studying over the Internet, each student gets a mentor who calls every week. In forums where students rate online programs, most raters had good things to say about the school; those who didn’t generally complained about useless mentors, or too much mentor turnover. (A few also complained that the school would not accept enough of their transfer credits.)
Mentors, who handled 80 students at a time, can see when each one has logged on and how much work he or she has completed.
According to a recent Stanford University School of Education study, "coaching" on time management and goal setting increased the likelihood that students at brick-and-mortar colleges would graduate, an effect that might be even stronger among online students, who have less connection with their school.
"The human contact with the mentor, the calls saying, ‘Did you get that chapter done, did you have any problems?’ was critical," Hermetz said. "There’s constant communication. I’m sure this isn’t for everybody, but when you’re more mature, and you really want to get something done, I can’t imagine a better way."
STRAIGHTERLINE: A Way to Speed The Pace
Burck Smith, who previously started an online tutoring company, founded Straighterline in 2008 to challenge the high cost of college.
"We got here by wondering why higher ed still costs so much, despite online being so much cheaper," he said. "We license our course materials and presentation from McGraw-Hill, and it’s the same stuff hundreds of colleges use."
Straighterline is a company, not a school, offering a growing roster of courses that include the introductory math, business, science and writing classes found at most community colleges and universities, for a fraction of the price.
It costs $99 to register for a month, plus $39 a course — or a full "freshman year" for $999. Given that so many students enroll in college but quickly drop out — especially at community colleges and commercial schools — Smith said his approach offered a way to try out college work without too big an investment.
Straighterline has served more than 1,000 students, Smith said, about 60 percent of whom completed their courses, with about 70 percent of those passing. Credits can be transferred to Straighterline’s two dozen partner schools, or in some cases, to another institution. Thousands of colleges nationwide — although not the most selective ones — will consider awarding transfer credit for courses certified by the American Council on Education, including 23 of Straighterline’s classes.
For Yoder, the Florida computer programmer, the ability to work at his own pace was a big draw. "I can literally sit in a room for 10 hours a day and go through multiple chapters, and get through a whole college textbook in a weekend," he said. "Being in a class, in a group, means you can only go as fast as the slowest person. So for me, Straighterline was a great way to go."
Like many students, Yoder combined his Straighterline credits with others — in his case, from the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program, a Microsoft certification he had earned through his work, and previous coursework at the University of South Florida — to earn his degree.
UNIVERSITY OF THE PEOPLE: Open Courses, Nearly Free
After the earthquake in Haiti destroyed much of the country’s higher-education infrastructure, the University of the People decided to set up three computer centers there, inviting English-speaking students from nearby tent cities to come and work for four hours a day.
"They don’t have electricity, they don’t have computers, there are university students who have to carry water on their head from another mountain," said Shai Reshef, the Israeli entrepreneur who spent $1 million to create the free university two years ago. "They come in two shifts, for four hours a day, to study. Their need was to the point that we began a feeding program."
Reshef sees his project as a way to use the Internet to bring higher education to poor students around the world. It uses free software and has enlisted hundreds of volunteer professors — more, he said, than he has been able to use — to teach 10-week online courses to 1,000 students from more than 100 countries. Starting this fall, students will have to pay $10 to $50 for admission.
In each class, 20-40 students are assigned weekly reading material and are required to post their responses and comment on others’ responses. The course materials are deliberately low-tech, with no audio or video, so that students can use them anywhere.
"It’s based on peer learning, so just like at the gym, what you get out of it depends on what you put in," said Shay David, a software entrepreneur with a Ph.D. from Cornell who taught introductory computer programming.
For Joe Jean, a 23-year-old Haitian from a poor family, the University of the People was the only option for college. "When I heard it was tuition-free, I didn’t think it would be very good," said Jean, who hopes to be a computer entrepreneur. "But I’ve learned a lot, and I like the way the instructors support the students and the students support each other."
The university is not accredited, and it offers programs only in business administration and computer science. But in June, it got two votes of confidence: New York University announced a partnership under which unusually promising but needy University of the People students might be able to enroll at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus and receive financial aid; and Hewlett-Packard announced an internship program, saying it believed strongly "in the work UoPeople is doing to democratize higher education."
"We’re building a model to show that education can be way cheaper than it is, that in developing countries, they could choose to educate every person for not much money," said Reshef, who has started and sold other education businesses, but sees the University of the People as a philanthropic contribution to global development.
LEARNING COUNTS: Receiving Credit For Job Experience
Started in January, Learning Counts is a project of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, the American Council on Education and the College Board, in which older students take an online course that teaches them to prepare a portfolio that shows what they have learned from work and life experience. The portfolios — one for each subject area in which they are seeking credit — are then submitted to an outside evaluator, who decides whether they should get academic credit.
So far, about 80 colleges, including Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., have agreed to accept those credit recommendations, and to give students three credit hours for the portfolio-creation course.
Kim Bove, 39, a student at Widener University near Philadelphia with three children, a full-time job and nearly two decades of work experience, got 12 credits in about six weeks with Learning Counts.
Bove started college at Pennsylvania State University, transferred to Widener her junior year, then dropped out. Last year, she re-enrolled at Widener, to complete the bachelor’s degree she hoped would lead to better jobs — and, she said, make her a better role model for her children.
"I took a class on supervision, something I’d done for 16 years, and I felt like I could have taught the class," said Bove, who works for a pharmaceutical company. "I took the portfolio course, which taught me how to reflect on what I’d learned from my experience, and put together a 40-page document that I submitted to the evaluator. Now I’ll be able to get my degree next year."
Bove’s documentation included a narrative describing how, in her managerial jobs at country clubs, she had used the same skills that would be taught in courses on effective planning and organization, supervising staff and effective leadership. She included photos of the facilities and recommendations from her employers.
Bove paid $500 for the course and $250 for the portfolio evaluation.
"I want my kids to go to college the traditional way, because I still think every young person should have that, to learn about learning, and have the whole social aspect of living on their own," she said. "But for me, it was a great choice."
A SHORT-LIVED TEST, EVEN WITH COACHING
The first question on the screening test for an online class I signed up for was not a hard one, but my most recent exposure to math had been in high school decades before, and I didn’t remember how to solve even easy equations.
I called my 22-year-old daughter and told her I had forgotten the order of operations. "PEMDAS, Mom, remember?" she said. "Parentheses, exponents, multiplication. …" And then I did remember.
I recognized the next question as a quadratic equation, but all I could summon up was that for some reason, you’re supposed to convert it into two little things in parentheses. My daughter told me how to do that, too.
I hung up, and went on. No problem.
But there was a problem: First test, first two questions — and I had just cheated.
To explore the world of online college classes, I had signed up for Business Statistics and English Composition 2 at Straighterline, for $177 for a month. The courses, based on McGraw-Hill textbooks, come with 10 free hours of online tutoring. I did not go so far as to buy the textbook or, for that matter, do any of the problem sets. I just wanted to see what it felt like to sit there, at the computer in my kitchen, and try to plow through it.
The statistics class started with easy material: averages, means, medians. Each topic was presented on the screen, and taught at the same time by a blandly pleasant male voice. Each topic also had textbook assignments. Then there were quizzes that generally allowed two hours to answer 10 multiple-choice questions. That would have been long enough to go back and learn the whole chapter. Or to call my daughter and get the answers. (The FAQ section did warn against getting the answers, midtest, from the online tutors.)
I skimmed along reasonably well for a few chapters. I was interested to learn about the existence of the Pearson coefficient of skewness. I appreciated the hokey puns, and the bland voice saying that while it may sound like Stephen Colbert’s "truthiness," skewness is in fact a useful mathematical concept. I had no interest, though, in learning to compute it — or even how to do it on Excel. So while I could pass vocabulary quizzes — I understood "skewness" — I was left to guess when questions required computation.
And the dreariness was getting to me. I could see that it was a reasonable way to learn, but I could also see that it took real motivation to stick with it.
The English class went a little better; I am a writer, after all. The text was "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. There were quizzes on vocabulary like metaphor, foreshadowing, prose and rising action. The first writing assignment was 500 to 1,250 words analyzing a political cartoon. It was the Arab Spring, and I chose a cartoon showing a camel labeled "Mubarak" being pulled toward an area labeled "Freedom."
I wrote everything I had to say, but it was only 341 words. So I padded my way to 501 words and turned it in. Straighterline requires that you turn in a first draft of each composition for comments, then revise and resubmit for a grade.
The next morning, I got my draft back. The Straighterline grader liked my "vivid descriptions. Way to go!" But she did not like my starting sentences with "and," saying that the second sentence sounded "tacked on." Instead, she said, just join the two sentences.
"Let me show you: Original: I went to the store. And I was rushed because I forgot the milk.
Revised: I went to the store, and I was rushed because I forgot the milk."
Fair enough. But the sentence from my piece that she used to make this point was: "And if the man is sweating over his task, the camel, too, is worked up, with a baleful expression on his face, teeth clenched tight, all four feet dug deeply into the sand, and sweat pouring from his head, as well."
Joining so many words to the previous sentence seemed ridiculous, so I just deleted the "and," resubmitted and got full marks.
The course also covered interviewing, teaching a mnemonic, DANVRS. But when it came time for the multiple-choice quiz, I couldn’t remember if that D was for "deadline" or "due diligence." Was the N "Nodding helpfully" or "Narrative Script," and the R, "Research" or "Risk-taking?"
Meanwhile, back in statistics, I was floundering. I called my math-proficient brother and asked him about permutation problems, hoping he might replace the screen and the voice. But my math-proficient brother is also a psychiatrist. "Hmmm," he said. "It sounds like you don’t like sitting there and working though it."
No, I didn’t.
"It sounds like you want someone to teach it to you."
Yes, I really, really did.
It seemed like the right time for online tutoring. I signed in, and wrote my permutation question on the whiteboard.
"Do you think that’s a math question?" the tutor wrote.
"Yes, I think it’s a statistics question," I wrote.
As it turned out, Straighterline had forgotten to register me for math tutoring, and this tutor dealt only with English.
But the month was nearly over and I didn’t need the credit — so like millions of other online students, I dropped out.