College, minus the frills. Even in the private-school universe, Southern New Hampshire University's $37,000 price tag is a bit past middling. That makes its offer of two years of study—minus a campus address and other niceties—attractive to students looking for a deal on college. Billy Flynn was one of those. Coming out of high school in 2008, he was drawn to the criminal justice field and foreign languages. SNHU had it all, but he and his family couldn't raise enough money. "I called my counselor. I flat-out didn't know what to do," he says. Not long after that call, the pilot of SNHU's no-frills Advantage Program was announced. A total of 40 students would attend classes at the university's Nashua and Salem, N.H., continuing education centers at a cost of $10,000. With financial aid, Flynn jumped at the chance. Flynn's schedule allowed him to attend classes in the morning and work in the afternoon. At the end of two years, he will have the choice of an associate's degree or transfer to another college.
Flynn said he was content with access to the main campus library and had little time for the gym and other extras, anyway. Kaileen Crane, who attended the Advantage Program in Salem, hasn't missed SNHU's frills, either. "The classes are small. The teaching is personal, more one-on-one than most students will ever get sitting in lecture halls," she said. "That's the only frill I would really want."
Community colleges. Even before President Barack Obama this summer announced a federal initiative to invest $12 billion to produce 5 million more community college graduates by 2020, two-year colleges were on the rise. For many students, community colleges are the most practical path to a diploma. Hundreds of community colleges have added campus housing to their attractions as well (article, Page 68). And many of these schools have been improving their partnerships with four-year universities to ease transfers for students. Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Minn., revamped its engineering program in 2005, adding dorms to create a learning community that gave students 24-hour access to computer labs and other engineering classrooms, says Ron Ulseth, one of the program's founders. The program (which costs students $13,000 a year for tuition, fees, room, and board) already is so well regarded that it has drawn interest from one of the state's four-year colleges.
"The feedback we were getting from practicing engineers was: Why can't engineering be [taught] in the last two years like Itasca has done it in the first two years?" Ulseth says. Starting this year, in partnership with Minnesota State University-Mankato, Itasca will offer the four-year Iron Range engineering program. As in Itasca's associate degree program, students will live in the same dorm. But they will be working toward bachelor's degrees in engineering from MSU-Mankato. "It's an experiment, but there's lots of evidence to show that it works," Ulseth says. "Once we prove it, there will be followers. People will be watching around the country."
When the transfers to four-year universities for upper-division classes work seamlessly, community colleges make bachelor's degrees affordable for millions of families. Since 2000, their enrollments have risen 30 percent. "All the evidence is that these students do just as well," says Broad, the American Council on Education president. "I think this is a great way to complete a first-rate baccalaureate degree."
Online colleges. The Web has become a national shopping mall for higher education, or so says Vicky Phillips, for 20 years the leading consumer advocate for online college students. "The pro side is that if you go online, you have more choices," she says. "The biggest con is that there tends to be a much higher dropout rate than a residential college ... Some [online programs] can have dropout rates of 70 percent, where 30 percent would be a high rate for a traditional campus." But when a program suits the student, online education can be a worthy alternative: A Department of Education study this year found online teaching just as effective as face-to-face instruction. The student's abilities to learn without the structure imposed by class attendance and to overcome the tendency to procrastinate are the crucial factors, Phillips says.