Online Education Goes Mainstream

This is a guest post by Bob Hartzell, in-house writer and chief researcher for Master Degree Bob addresses the issues confronted by would-be college students and professionals returning to school trying to develop career options. He recently covered the accounting mba programs top 5 list according to US News & World Report.

After years of stepsister status the online education format is becoming the new greatest thing among traditional universities. It can be a boost to the revenue stream for them and it is also a way to reach the unemployed and underemployed millions who have realized they need to retool their education a bit in order to compete in today’s job market. USC took a tentative step by putting their Master of Social Work degree online and saw their enrollment in the program quadruple in two years.

They have expanded their online presence steadily and today they have an amazing graduate level program for engineering available online, offering master’s degrees in aerospace engineering, electrical, mechanical, civil, biomedical and computer engineering, and many others. Even Stanford’s gotten into the act, with sixteen online master’s degrees available in engineering and statistics. Of course you have to gain admission to the university first, and these degrees aren’t cheap. USC is asking a little over $900 per credit.

Public universities that have gotten into the online game can be much more reasonable in cost, particularly (as usual) for in-state students. There are some impressive and innovative programs out there.

1. University of Maryland has about 90,000 students worldwide studying online through the University of Maryland University College, one of the eleven degree granting institutions in the state system. UMUC is the largest provider of online education among the public universities.

2. University of North Carolina draws from all sixteen of its campuses to offer online undergraduate and graduate degrees in a wide range of fields. They offer 27 degrees and certificates in business, 18 in computer science and IT, 88 in education, and so on through an extensive list.

3. University of Illinois has dozens of degrees and certificates available online from the three campuses. The degree programs include bachelors’ in several of the liberal arts majors, and masters’ degrees in education, IT, and several of the health sciences.

4. University of Massachusetts offers a variety of degrees, most of which are generated from the Amherst campus. But the Dartmouth, Boston, Worcester and Lowell campuses all contribute as well to a remarkable array of options. The nursing program alone offers 13 degree options; in education there are 20 bachelor’s and masters’ degrees available.

5. Penn State University World Campus offers over seventy degree and certificate programs. Criminal justice, project management, public administration and software engineering represent the range of academic options available through this virtual campus: Penn State was one of the earliest adopters of online education.

Another option that shouldn’t be overlooked is the schools that have been in the online education business for years. The degree mills are slowly being weeded out by savvy applicants or shut down by public agencies that have the authority to torpedo educational frauds. Online schools that treat education as a business have improved on several fronts as the format has become more acceptable. The technology has reached the point where classes can be taught in cohorts, so students get to know their colleagues. Communication with instructors is in many cases easier in the online format than on a large campus and also in many cases can be via a teleconference link.

Accreditation has become a necessary reality for online schools that want to prosper. Accordingly many of these schools have invested in upgrades of their faculty assets and alignment of their curricula to meet the educational standards established by recognized accrediting bodies. In many cases the process has taken years, but the schools that want to maintain a viable business model know they have to meet traditional academic standards. The key for the colleges and for potential students is accreditation by an association or commission recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Cost and Credibility

Professional online schools have also, in many cases, become a bargain today. They have been characterized as overpriced, underperforming institutions in the past; for some of them that is still the case. But if you compare tuition costs for out of state students at public universities with tuition costs for professional online schools you will probably be pleasantly surprised. Increasingly the same can be said for in-state students at public universities, where budget problems have led to skyrocketing costs. Tuition and books at the University of California for 2011 graduate students is about $12,000. Those are in-state student costs; a graduate program at an accredited online school is going to be competitive and you don’t have to worry about where you live or how you’re going to get to campus.

7 Thoughts on “Online Education Goes Mainstream”

  1. With all these highly selective universities such as USC and Stanford providing the ability to obtain an online degree, what draws people to this opportunity over attending the actual university if they have to first be accepted as a regular applicant before enrolling online? I would assume cost is the number one reason.

    I went to a University of California and graduated 2 years back, its ridiculous how much more expensive tuition is now from when I started.


  2. It’s only a matter of time until all of the reputable, accredited school in this country start to offer at least one online class/degree opportunity.

    Think about it. Just a couple of years ago, online dating sites were considered “dangerous” – or shady, at best.

    Now sites like EHarmony are taking up huge chunks of American internet traffic. I can only guess, but I’d say this is the way online education is going as well.


  3. @Oneal: I think that is an interesting comparison to make. The biggest reason universities are probably offering more and more online classes is due to how much money they can make from them. Online classes have low cost for universities yet students pay almost the same. I am not saying that it necessarily a bad thing. I like online classes, but when universities catch on, I think they will become more and more common.

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