Even in the private-school universe, Southern New Hampshire University's $37,000 annual price tag is on the high side. That makes its offer of two years of study—minus a campus address and other niceties—attractive to students looking for a deal. Coming out of high school in 2008, Billy Flynn 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 flat-out didn't know what to do," he says. Not long after, the pilot of SNHU's no-frills Advantage Program was announced. Forty students would attend classes at the university's Nashua and Salem, N.H., continuing education centers at a cost of $10,000. After two years, they could get an associate's degree, then continue at the main campus or another school. Flynn jumped at the chance. His schedule allowed him to attend classes in the morning and work in the afternoon.
Flynn, who left the program after a year to pursue studies in engineering, says he was content with access to the main campus library and had little time for the other extras anyway. Kaileen Crane, who attended the Advantage Program in Salem, was also satisfied. "The classes are small. The teaching is personal, more one-on-one than most students will ever get sitting in lecture halls," she says. "That's the only frill I would really want."
For many, community colleges are the most practical path to a diploma. Hundreds of community colleges now have campus housing. And many have been establishing or improving 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 engineering classrooms, says Ron Ulseth, one of the program's founders. At $13,000 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board, the program has already 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.
When the transfers to four-year universities for upper-division classes work seamlessly, community colleges make bachelor's degrees affordable for millions. According to a survey by the American Association of Community Colleges, enrollment increased almost 17 percent from 2007 to 2009, with some schools reporting much higher growth. "All the evidence is that these students do just as well," says Broad of the American Council on Education.
The Web has become a national shopping mall for higher ed, says Vicky Phillips, founder of GetEducated.com, for 20 years a leading consumer advocate for students pursuing coursework online. "The pro side is that if you go online, you have more choices," she says. "The biggest con is that . . . some [online programs] can have dropout rates of 70 percent, where 30 percent would be a high rate for a traditional campus." A Department of Education analysis last year found online teaching as effective as face-to-face instruction. The ability to learn without the structure imposed by class attendance and to overcome the tendency to procrastinate are the crucial factors, Phillips says.
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 in English from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says her online classes were plenty challenging. Most of her classmates 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's in English. "Without a doubt, online was the more cost-effective way to do it," she says. "But it's not an easy out. It requires the same work, dedication, and time commitment as any other program."