Online Education Offers Access and Affordability

Improvements in the quality of online courses are attracting millions of people to enroll.

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The timing couldn't be better. Just as millions of working-age Americans are realizing they need extra education and skill-sharpening to thrive in a recession, a flowering of competition promises to dramatically drive down prices and raise the quality of online college courses.

Indeed, time-stressed Americans fed up with commuting costs are already choosing online education. More than 4 million enrolled in at least one online course last fall, up from fewer than 2 million in 2003.And some of the biggest online players, such as the for-profit University of Phoenix, say new enrollment has jumped by about 20 percent since the economy began its decline more than a year ago. While online courses have been primarily designed for working adults, younger students in increasing numbers are switching to E-learning. Some, like students at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, have little choice. FDU requires its students to take at least one online course per year.

The sector is booming even though online college courses have been dogged by complaints about poor quality and high prices. For example, the website of about-to-close Warren National University, which is not accredited by any federally approved agency, says it charged $9,000 for the coursework of a master's degree. Unaccredited courses and degrees are generally not recognized by employers or other colleges.

But demand for online courses might soon jump even more as expanding ranks of traditional ivy-covered universities and Internet entrepreneurs introduce online programs that are just a few hundred dollars per course. (Or, if you don't care about getting credit, they're absolutely free.) Meanwhile, technological improvements, such as easier-to-use video cameras and software, are helping online schools make their courses more rigorous and more engaging.

And some long-established online colleges may kick-start a race to raise quality by publishing indicators of their students' satisfaction and progress at a new website that is expected to launch this spring.

The competition and technological improvements add up to "a great thing" for anyone interested in learning, says Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who studies the impact of technology on education. "What used to be expensive and inaccessible becomes convenient and accessible," he says. "You can see price competition coming." What's more, the best online courses, in many cases, now rival the quality of traditional classes, says Christensen, who recently virtually audited a Brigham Young University online accounting course. "Anything beyond the 10th row in a large lecture hall is distance learning" anyway, he jokes.

Lower prices. Although some of the big, established online players charge more than $1,500 a course, many of the newer entrants and public universities charge significantly less. Colorado State University—Global, which started offering online classes in 2008, asked in-state students signing up for their first online course this spring for $797. In 2007, Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, started offering graduate education courses for just $412.50 apiece, which means a student could get a master's for as little as $4,950 in 18 months. Next fall, the public university plans to launch undergraduate online courses for a tuition that school officials predict will very likely come in under $500 for a standard three-credit course—no matter where the student lives.

And several new Internet start-ups are promising even lower-cost courses, though they do not yet have the stamp of approval from government-approved accreditation agencies.

The new nonprofit University of the People, which plans to start accepting students this spring, will offer totally free online courses and textbooks leading to business and computer technology bachelor's degrees. The new university will charge students only up to $50 for admission and $100 for each final exam. (Those in the developing world will pay less.) The university will accept 300 students from around the world for its first semester this fall but hopes to expand quickly. The University of the People is not currently accredited. But founder Shai Reshef, chairman of Cramster.com, is hopeful of eventual accreditation because he's using volunteer professors from major universities.