Universities Begin to Offer Online High School Diplomas

A growing number of universities are offering online high school programs.

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Online high schools have given athletes and performers a way to keep up with their studies without giving up what they love. Recently, other students have begun to give these schools a try. A new crop of university-backed, virtual high schools is changing this emerging field.

Stanford University, George Washington University, Indiana University, and the University of Missouri have all launched online, diploma-granting high school programs over the past few years, and several other four-year universities offer online classes to high school students.

A degree from Indiana University High School won't ensure a student gets accepted if he or she applies for admission to IU, but a name-brand high school degree certainly doesn't hurt when a student is applying to colleges.

[Learn more about applying to college.]

"Students doing online programs have to take their studies as seriously as they would if it was a brick and mortar school," says Bari Norman, a former admissions officer at Columbia University who now runs Expertadmissions.com, a consulting company that helps students apply to college. "There's not much regulation of [online high schools], so everyone has to look at them a little more carefully. Some programs have a good reputation, but the key is finding something that's reputable."

Norman says Stanford and Brigham Young University are known to offer solid, accredited virtual high school programs. And a brand new program at George Washington looks promising, she says.

GW ran a 16-student, pilot high school during the spring, which will expand to accommodate about 150 students this fall. The selective application process may help prepare students for college. "It's very much like a college application," says Barbara Brueggemann, the school's dean. This summer, select students took a communications class taught by a university professor and got to know their classmates during a 10-day summer program at the school's campus in Washington, D.C.

Although students who attend GW's high school won't be given preferential treatment if they apply to the university, Brueggemann says ideally some will go there for college. "A student finding the right fit is the most important thing," she says. "The hope is that some of our students will choose and be accepted to George Washington."

[Learn more about online higher education.]

Students who attend an online high school with a university affiliation might not run into the same barriers that students who attend other online high schools might, because their diplomas are backed by the university, says Bruce Colston, director of Indiana's program.

Colston says many of his students are accepted into top-tier colleges. "Because we have a good, strong curriculum, they're going to be very competitive candidates. We've never had a student rejected because we're an online high school," he says. "We have a good reputation, and I think that means something."

Students (or their parents) will pay for that reputation. Like the universities they're affiliated with, these high schools aren't free. Out-of-state students at IU pay $201.50 per course, for example, even though many students will never set foot on campus. Tuition at GW's program costs $9,995 annually, in line with many brick and mortar, private high schools.

[Learn about a Gates Foundation plan to create online courses in high schools.]

For actors and athletes, online high school may be the only option, and university-affiliated schools can give parents peace of mind, says Norman, the former Columbia admissions counselor. But she argues that traditional high schools are still the best fit for most students.

Some university admissions counselors, she says, worry about whether a student is getting unauthorized help while taking classes online. For now, Norman says, online high schools work best for students looking to take an extra class or two to boost their college profile.

"It's a challenge because it's so new," she says. "On some level, [online educators] are figuring it out as they go along. We're still kind of in the discovery phase."

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