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."