Different Paths to a College Degree

Online programs, three-year bachelor's degrees, and community colleges offer options in higher ed.

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Capt. Ashley O'Neill says her job with the Army's 45th Sustainment Brigade in Iraq provided the structure she needed to study technical writing online through East Carolina University. "I'd go to work at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, and during off-hours, there was nothing much else to do," she says. "Most of the professors didn't know I was eight time zones away." O'Neill, holder of a bachelor's degree in English from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says her online classes were plenty challenging. Most of her fellow students were working people in their 30s and serious about their education. "It felt strange getting to know these people by E-mail, but by the time I graduated, I felt closer to people I had online classes with, much more so than undergrad," she says. O'Neill met her classmates in 2008 at graduation in Greenville, N.C., where she collected a master of arts in English. "Without a doubt, online was the more cost-effective way to do it," she says, explaining that ECU professors even helped students hold down textbook costs by E-mailing articles. "But it's not an easy out. It requires the same work, dedication, and time commitment as any other program."

Phillips says 95 percent of online degrees are offered by nonprofits, a fact often lost in the aggressive marketing of the University of Phoenix and other for-profit schools. "But the University of Wisconsin may be looking for 30 students in its undergraduate business program. The University of Phoenix is looking for 30,000," she says.

What today's undergrads need to be learning for tomorrow's work, Broad says, are skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communicating, and working in teams. And expect that learning shouldn't end with a diploma. "No body of knowledge gained in four years will last a lifetime anymore," she says.