The online market in higher education is undergoing electrifying growth. Last year, more than 2 million Americans took college-level courses online.

According to the 2004 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, more than 2.6 million students were studying online in the fall of 2004 — up from 1.9 million a year earlier.

Though the cost is about the same as for an education on campus, the advantages for students are obvious. Onliners are freed from geographical constraints, residency requirements and rigid schedules. They can pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees while holding full-time jobs, traveling or serving in the military.

But industry watchers warn that consumers looking for credible credits on the Internet need to be cautious. In many fields, headhunters for top-tier companies are only beginning to take online degrees seriously. And educators, while enthusiastic about the potential of e-education, warn that the quality of e-degrees currently on the market fluctuates dramatically.

Distinguishing wheat from chaff

The rapid growth in the popularity of online degrees prompts educators including Caroline Howard, editor-in-chief of the “Encyclopedia of Online Learning,” to herald them as the wave of the future.

“There are big changes happening in higher education,” says Howard, an associate professor who teaches online courses at Touro University International. “The traditional model of the 18- to 22-year-old, on-campus student is decreasing. Many are working adults going back to college and trying to balance that with family life.

“Online, you can work at your own pace, and attend lectures and participate in class discussions any time,” she says.

But as demand for downloaded degrees rises, so does the number of institutions eager to get in on the act, some not so reputable. Many spend big bucks on advertising, spinning a web of yarns that can make it difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad.

Education has become a commodity, experts warn, and students need to learn how to think like consumers to get the best deals — and end up with degrees that will hold up in the competitive job market.

“People spend a lot of time finding out about what cars they should buy,” says Murray Turoff, distinguished professor of computer and information science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “A consumer of higher education needs to go to the same lengths. There are a lot of for-profit efforts out there, so it pays to look very carefully at the quality of the education being offered.”

Beware the accreditation scam

The No. 1 question people ask about online universities is whether they are accredited, says Vicky Phillips, founder of GetEducated.com, which tracks hundreds of accredited online programs.

“What most people don’t realize,” says Phillips, “is that there is a second, very important question they should be asking: Who accredits the institution?

“Many are accredited by agencies they themselves have created. Unfortunately, there is no national regulating agency for accreditation, so it’s quite legal to do that. Consumers are often taken in by them.”

Turoff warns that prospective e-students should also make sure the degree program they are interested in is accredited in the online version, not just in the traditional classroom version. Scientific, technical and management degrees are accredited over and above the general regional accreditation of a whole university or college, he says.

Do your homework

“In some institutions, online courses are completely distinct,” Turoff says. “They’re taught by outside lecturers and part-time adjuncts. The faculty doesn’t get much involved, and the quality is not likely to be the same. Typically, an adjunct gets paid $3,000-$7,000 per course, whereas a professor would range from $10,000-$25,000. In some institutions, there’s a lot of pressure to use cheaper instructors.”

If what’s offered online is the same as what’s offered on campus, from faculty to syllabus, Turoff says,”You can have some confidence that the online program is of the same quality. Today, most quality institutions publish online syllabuses of their courses. If they don’t do that, you should be suspicious.”

Specialization can be a factor as well, says Turoff.

“One computer-science department might be highly theoretical, with little practical application,” he says. “Another might be concentrated in a particular field, such as artificial intelligence. If that’s not what you’re interested in, you should go elsewhere.”

Touro’s Howard says most good colleges and universities publish faculty resumes online.

“Look at where the professionals got their degrees,” she suggests. “There are two distinct faculty models teaching online courses. At any major university, professors teaching graduate courses are all at the Ph.D. level, and should be actively involved in research. At for-profit institutions, they are more likely to be adjuncts or come from industry.”

Both Turoff and Howard recommend checking with professional organizations to find out what online courses meet their requirements.

“If you’re pursuing continuing education for nursing or teaching, they would have the best resources about where to enroll,” Howard says.

Turoff says professional bodies such as the

Association of Computing Machinery publish generally accepted standards for various degree programs, as well as documents explaining the differences between them.

“Knowing that you are interested in computing is not enough,” he says. “You need to understand the huge number of alternatives. Computer science, information systems, computer engineering and so on require separate degree programs.”

This can be particularly helpful in assessing online courses offered by technical institutions, Turoff says, since many of them don’t bother with accreditation, a lengthy and difficult process.

E-degrees gain acceptance

On the job front, applicants with degrees from reputable online sources are increasing able to compete with their more traditionally educated peers, says Phillips.

“Beginning in 1996,” she says, “we’ve seen a sharp increase in acceptance of distance degrees in corporate America. In 1989, fewer than 50 percent of corporate managers we surveyed rated a distance degree as good as a residential option. By 2000, it had risen to 79 percent, and in 2001, acceptance rates climbed to 85 percent.”

She speculates the change in attitude is due in part to a general acceptance of all things Internet, as well as the fact that “more name-brand players are getting involved. It’s no longer just a matter of matchbook-cover schools no one ever heard of.”

Established universities get in the act

Well-established and respected schools play a role in the transformation, too. Kathy Febraio, director of outreach and communication for the SUNY Learning Network, an online delivery system serving 40 of 64 State University of New York campuses, says student transcripts from her school don’t indicate if a degree is earned on campus or online.

Peter Rubba, senior director for Penn State World Campus, and Sallie Johnson, dean of the Distance Learning Center for Troy University in Alabama, say their universities don’t put the e-factor on official records either.

But hold on, says Susan Gottlieb, practice leader for financial-service and human-resource practices at Futurestep, a Korn-Ferry company that specializes in filling middle-management positions. Fortune 500 companies, she says, are still likely to look askance at degrees earned at unfamiliar or less regarded institutions.

“It depends on the industry,” Gottlieb says. “There’s an elitism among top accounting firms and investment banking firms. To be acceptable, you would have to go to certain schools and have a certain grade-point average. Online degrees have a long way to go before they would be acceptable there.

“You really have to do due diligence to find out what impact your degree will have. People can get duped and find themselves in the same situation as someone who goes to a medical school offshore, then can’t get a job in the U.S.,” she says.

Costs run the gamut

The cost of a good online education isn’t much different from what you’d pay on campus, says Phillips. But, she warns, there can be significant differences in fees.

GetEducated.com publishes “best buy” lists of accredited online programs based on biannual surveys. For an MBA, Phillips says, “you can expect to pay as much as $107,000 or as little as $2,760. The average is a little over $16,000.”

The majority of “best buys,” she says, come from state or publicly supported colleges and universities, where relaxed admission policies are broadening the market.

“Traditionally, residents of the state were charged a lower tuition than nonresidents,” Phillips says. “Now most have a single e-tuition rate regardless of residency, which makes them a phenomenally good buy no matter where you live.”

At Troy University, says Johnson, undergraduate credits online “cost close to what they would on campus. There might be a minimal additional fee to purchase a software program.

“An MBA degree runs $100 to $110 higher per credit hour because it calls for higher qualifications of faculty and more expensive delivery,” she says.

Penn State World Campus charges e-students, no matter where they live, a fee comparable to the cost of on-campus instruction for Pennsylvania residents, Rubba says. Tuition at the SUNY Learning Network is also the same as for face-to-face instruction on campus, Febraio says, but there’s no break for out-of-state residents.

Surprisingly, degrees from for-profit institutions are rarely good buys, Phillips says, though slick-marketing techniques often suggest otherwise.

“For-profits,” she says, “may make their programs appear less costly by charging less per credit, but requiring more credits than is standard. So you have to look at the cost of the whole degree.”

Marilyn Bowden is a freelance writer based in Prescott, Ariz.

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